Transcript of Module 1 Public Hearing on 29 June 2023

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Yes, Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Good morning, my Lady. The first witness this morning is Sir Jeremy Farrar, who is joining us online.

Sir Jeremy, could you be sworn, please, or give the affirmation. If you follow the instructions from the usher.

Sir Jeremy Farrar


(Evidence via videolink)

Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keith: Could you provide your full name, please.

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Jeremy James Farrar.

Lead Inquiry: Sir Jeremy, thank you for joining us this morning. May I commence, please, with your qualifications.

You trained, I believe, in medicine, with postgraduate training in London, Chichester, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Oxford and San Francisco. You have a DPhil PhD from the University of Oxford.

You were a director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Institute at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam from 1996 to 2013.

From 2013 you were Director of the Wellcome Trust, and from May 2023 have you been the Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yes, all correct.

Lead Inquiry: Are you giving evidence today in your personal capacity as opposed to a representative of the World Health Organisation?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yes, correct. It’s very important that I’m here totally in my personal capacity, not representing the World Health Organisation or, indeed, previous lives at Wellcome Trust either.

Lead Inquiry: Have you throughout your professional career served as a chair on a multitude of advisory bodies, for governments and global organisations? Were you the founding chair, in fact, of the World Health Organisation R&D Blueprint entity or body, and the founding director of the International Severe Acute Respiratory and emerging Infection Consortium, ISARIC?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Have you received a plethora of honours from a number of governments, institutes and entities?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Thank you.

Lead Inquiry: Could I commence, please, Sir Jeremy, by asking you some questions about the United Kingdom influenza strategy document, the 2011 strategy, about which a great deal of evidence has been received by my Lady’s Inquiry.

Are you familiar with that 2011 strategy for influenza pandemic?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yeah, thanks very much.

Can I start as well by just reaching out with the greatest support for those who have lost lives during the Covid pandemic, affected by the Covid pandemic, families that are still affected and those with long Covid, and particularly also for healthcare workers around the world who put their lives at risk in order to help all of us.

The influenza strategy I think you’re referring to, of 2011 – in 2011 I was living and working in Vietnam, and so I was not directly involved in the development of the strategy, but it was lessons learned indeed after the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, and so I was peripherally involved in parts of it, and also in the Academy of Medicine Sciences’ review of how clinical trials and evidence and data could be gathered in the context of epidemics and emergencies, so peripherally involved in that strategy.

Lead Inquiry: Was there a general awareness of the importance of the strategy to the United Kingdom’s pandemic preparedness for influenza?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yeah, I think if you go back – bear in mind I’ve never worked directly within government, I’m sure there are better people than me about – talking about how that was perceived in government, but if you go back to the government risk registers over the years, then pandemic influenza would have been in the top risk of many of those risk registers.

I do think, coming out of 2009, that there was an issue with a sense – and this actually is true after many epidemics, I sincerely hope it’s not true after this epidemic – that actually 2009 H1N1 was not quite as bad as people thought, and there was a danger, globally, including in the UK, of a sort of child that cries wolf, and that actually these were less of an issue than perhaps they were. I think that did influence thinking after 2009 and may have built into why influenza as a pandemic dropped down risk registers around the world after 2011.

Lead Inquiry: There have been a number of references in the course of evidence to the possibility that a degree of complacency was engendered by the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, because it was, by the nature of these things, relatively mild; would you agree?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yeah, I do agree. I was in Mexico as part of a WHO group in May of 2009. In May of 2009 the city of Mexico in four hospitals within a square kilometre were full of mostly young people with very, very severe influenza, and for many of us who have been concerned, and remain concerned, that one of the greatest risks is an influenza pandemic of some ilk – going back to 1918 – it was entirely appropriate, in my view, in 2009 to raise the flag that this was going to cause a major global problem.

In reality, as you rightly say, the severity of H1N1 in 2009 was less than expected and therefore I think there did come a degree of complacency that actually the world was safer against an influenza pandemic than perhaps had been previously thought, and there was a lot of criticism at the time about things like stockpiling of the drug oseltamivir. Personally I think that criticism was unwarranted and that actually influenza remains, among – with others, but remains one of the greatest risks to humanity. And as we now watch H5N1 pandemic in animals circulate around the world in an unprecedented way, influenza is never going to go away as a threat to humanity.

Lead Inquiry: Sir Jeremy, whilst you give evidence –

Lady Hallett: Could we slow down?

Mr Keith: Could you slow down a little? We obviously want to hear what you have to say and it’s important that your evidence is recorded by our hard-working stenographer and it’s quite difficult if you go too fast.

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Apologies. It’s a nervous occasion to be part of.

Lead Inquiry: Well, it won’t be for very long, Sir Jeremy, so I’m sure you’ll survive.

My Lady has heard considerable evidence about the inherent unpredictability of respiratory viruses and therefore the inherent unpredictability of the characteristics of a pandemic which may ensue from a widespread pathogenic outbreak. Putting it in blunter terms, it’s impossible to know with any degree of certainty what characteristics the outbreak may have, which viruses, respiratory viruses, may eventuate, and therefore what one has to guard against.

Was there a general sense at all, as far as you could tell, after 2011, that there had been a failure to focus on, in the government guidance and the government policy in the United Kingdom, on the inherent unpredictability of respiratory viruses and, therefore, on the risks of a non-influenza pandemic?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yeah, I think that would be true in the UK. I think it would be true globally as well. If you go back in the last 20 years – I mean, I started working on emerging infections in 1999 with an outbreak of something called Nipah virus in Malaysia –

Lead Inquiry: Sir Jeremy, please slow down, you’re going very fast again. You have to steel yourself to go slower than you otherwise would.

Sir Jeremy Farrar: If we look from 1999 to 2019, that 20-year period, and just look at the number of regional or global events that have led to major disruption, SARS-1, which I was involved in in Vietnam, H5N1, Zika, MERS, another coronavirus, the pandemic of 2009, and many others as well, it is clear that we’re living in an age of – a pandemic age, where, as Mike Ryan at the WHO has said, we’re living in an age which is going to have more frequent and more complex pandemics. Yet it is extraordinarily difficult when governments are faced with dealing with the challenges of day to day to also put in place those critical infrastructures, resilience and surge capacity and spare capacity, that would allow to deal with the unexpected, but inevitable, disruptions that are going to occur.

So I think in the UK and around the world, despite the warnings of the last 20 years, there has been a complacency about the need to prepare for these sorts of major disruptive events which go well beyond health to the whole of society, and the UK, yes, was complacent in regard to planning for that.

Lead Inquiry: Is it your view that epidemics will become more frequent, more complex, perhaps, and harder to prevent and contain as a result of the well known issues of changing ecology, urbanisation, climate change and increased travel and movement of human beings?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yeah, you’ve hit the major features that I would have outlined, absolutely. These are features of the 21st century. They’re not going to go away. It would be a grave mistake, in my view, to see each of these episodes I’ve outlined – some of them, but there are more – to see each one as a discrete episode. They are telling us something far deeper about how the world is changing, biodiversity loss, environment, climate change, urbanisation, trade and travel as you say.

Lead Inquiry: Slow down.

Sir Jeremy Farrar: And what I’d like for us to move away from is thinking that this is a discrete episode which we can put in a box and think about, and think more about the systemic way that we need to address these more frequent and more complex events.

If we look at Ebola in West Africa in 2014, the Ebola virus had not changed, people had not changed, what had changed was the social circumstances in which it happened, not in villages that could be isolated and quarantined and an epidemic brought under control quickly, but in major capital cities and across borders, and that more frequent and, indeed, sociologically more complex epidemics and pandemics is what we will face in the future.

Lead Inquiry: Does it follow, Sir Jeremy, that from the vantage point of governments, and with a view to the necessary and important process by which risks are identified, assessed and planned for, that there must be a much greater focus now, both in light of Covid and of course because of the increased general risks to which you’ve referred, upon: firstly, identifying multiple scenarios, as opposed to just influenza; secondly, focusing additionally on how to prevent catastrophic consequence as opposed to managing catastrophic consequence; and, thirdly, thinking more and to a much greater extent about the necessary countermeasures that may need to be deployed?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yeah, absolutely. The first thing I’d say is what you have before a crisis hits will to a large extent determine your ability to respond to it. If you have deep inequalities in your society, if you have a large degree of ill health in terms of health issues, if you have health services which are stretched to the limit, if you have fragmented government approaches such that each individual vertical structure considers its area but there’s a challenge to sort of look at the all-of-society perspective, then trying to cobble together a horizon approach, an all-of-government, an all-of-society approach in a set of vertical systems is extraordinarily difficult.

And tabletop exercises will get you so far, but you need to be working in those systems all of the time if you want those systems to work when a crisis hits, and I think we need to think more strongly about how totally disruptive all-of-society events, of which this is a good example, will be dealt with as a cross-government whole-of-society approach rather than just as a single ministry approach.

Lead Inquiry: A vital component in the whole-of-society approach is, of course, having adequate scientific advice as well as, and alongside, an adequate and sufficient research base. Could I focus firstly, please, on the issue of the scientific advisory networks which are available in the United Kingdom.

You were a member of SAGE, the stand-up – that is to say, the committee which is stood up in the event of emergencies – in relation to Zika and Ebola; is that correct?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Have you had extensive experience throughout your long career of dealing with the scientific advisory structures in the United Kingdom beyond SAGE?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Evidence was given by Professor Sir Chris Whitty that the UK science advisory system, whilst complex and not perfect, is considered to be one of the stronger ones internationally; would you agree?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: What must be done to ensure that that remains the position in terms of resourcing or funding or a continuing focus on understanding the vital importance of scientific advice?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: So I would agree with those comments, and I have been involved – in some of your introductory remarks – with a number of other governments around the world, of all economic levels of growth and depth of scientific background. My view is that the construct of having a Chief Scientific Adviser in every ministry, close to the minister, close to the system, close to the senior civil servants, not just structured in a crisis but there every day, and learning to bridge the cultural and language complexity that is there within different disciplines, and different ways of working and different educational backgrounds and everything else, building that structure to be permanent, to be functioning all the time and, critically, providing value and utility to a government machinery all of the time, is, I believe, critical.

I’ve argued with many other countries – not argued, discussed with many other countries that actually the UK system of scientific advice in every ministry brought together under a chief scientist network, together providing mutual support to each other, is absolutely critical, must be maintained, must be strengthened. The very best people in science should be encouraged to go into it and – on the rotational basis, so that they can retain their scientific expertise and skills, and then network together through the chief scientists. That, to me, is the best system in the world and everything should be done to maintain it, not for crisis time but for all the time, to deal with the day-to-day issues as well as being able to respond when a crisis inevitably hits.

Lead Inquiry: It’s plain, Sir Jeremy, that in the particular context of dealing with the Covid pandemic, SAGE and the scientific advisory structures in the United Kingdom Government drew to a very large extent, of course, upon biomedical expertise. Because of the need to consider at speed and in very difficult circumstances the consequences of societal measures, social restrictions, mandatory quarantining, and so on and so forth, it may be the case that there was an absence of sufficient expertise from non-biomedical professionals, that is to say economists and behavioural scientists or social scientists, and experts not from the world of health, and not from the world of science, but from the social sciences.

Would you agree with that? From your experience of SAGE, do you think that it is, in a general sense, sufficiently diverse?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: So I would agree with some of that, but not all of it. Firstly, I think that SAGE is often seen as the names officially on the SAGE list, which I think counts to 30 or 40 people or so. Behind that there were hundreds of people involved. And particularly on some of the areas you mentioned there, behavioural science, for instance, I think the input into – the behavioural scientists into SAGE from throughout my time on SAGE, I thought was of the very highest quality.

Where I think – where I do agree with you is that there was no – there were two things lacking, in my view. One is the SAGE health, public health, behavioural science perspectives on the pandemic were not mirrored with other equally transparent and debated issues that brought the whole of the society elements together, and I believe – I’ve never been in government, but I believe that a better approach would have been to have a SAGE that focuses on its area of expertise, definitely including behavioural science, international perspective, ethics, many of the things you mention, but that would be mirrored, in my view, through the Cabinet Office, with a similar transparent expert group that would consider other aspects that are absolutely critical to an all-of-society response.

I think if you ask SAGE to do all of that, it would become huge, unwieldy, and wouldn’t be able to have the clarity, given in mind that SAGE was meeting, at some points, every 24 or 48 hours. So personally I would do that through the Cabinet Office but have equal transparency with elements that considered other aspects beyond the health agenda.

The second thing I would suggest, and I was part of this in a US group, is that there is outside the SAGE system, but linked to it in a constructive way, if you like, a red team. A red team that would have access to other – the same information but would be able to constructively challenge the thinking from the outside and wouldn’t be within the room at the same time. I thought that worked extremely well when I was part of a similar enterprise in the United States, and I would like to see that set up. Independent SAGE I think tried to do that, but unfortunately, for reasons others can debate, sometimes it became more confrontational than perhaps was constructive.

Lead Inquiry: A red team would plainly be in a position to challenge orthodoxy. Do you mean orthodoxy on the part of the government or orthodoxy – or alleged orthodoxy on the part of the scientists in SAGE or a mirror group who, I think I should tell you, have described themselves in this Inquiry in various terms such as being self-correcting or, on another occasion, as being “licensed dissidents”? Do scientists need to be challenged in that way, or is this a point made more directly against administrators and government employees?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Science absolutely has to be challenged and I think – unfortunately I’m not aware that beyond the summaries, been released I think at the behest of Patrick Vallance, crucially, it’s a shame that actually SAGE wasn’t recorded in some ways, because I think within the SAGE discussions that I was always part of, there was a very high degree of challenge.

But to have an outside group, a red group, that just puts in questions – have you thought about this? Have you thought about that? Have you considered that? – who are not part of that formal group, I think – my own experience of that is from the United States, and there I thought it was very helpful to be able to do that. It doesn’t diminish the authority or the voice of SAGE but it would give you some of the external challenge.

I think within the Cabinet Office, to me that is where the political challenge of, is this the right thing to do, closing schools, closing economies, whatever it might be, should be held. But I think those need also to be transparent in the same way that SAGE was, with its minutes and summaries, so that people can actually – as a public, can actually challenge those assumptions as well.

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith, are you going further into the mirror group?

Mr Keith: No, I was going to move to the questions –

Lady Hallett: Can I just have a brief summary of what Sir Jeremy means by the mirror group? Which experts? How would it work?

Mr Keith: Yes.

Sir Jeremy, a few moments ago, in response to a question from myself as to whether or not the constitution, the make-up of SAGE was sufficiently diverse, you suggested the possibility of a mirror group, not as part of SAGE itself, because it would become too unwieldy and too large to be convened at speed and in very difficult circumstances, but a separate committee comprising experts, specialists from different professional walks of life. Could you expand on that? You referred to social scientists, economists and others. Is there anything more that you want to say about that in terms of the composition?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Well, I think the social scientists and behavioural scientists were absolutely fundamental to SAGE itself, so I certainly … but I think a group outside of what I call a red team, that was able to throw in questions into SAGE: have you thought about this? Have you thought about that? Some of that happened informally, through things like, in the UK, the Royal Society, Academy of Medicine Sciences, et cetera, et cetera and obviously in the lay and scientific literature. But having been part, for some time, in the US of that red group, which brought together, yes, epidemiologists, biomedical people, social scientists, economists, people thinking outside the box, that was helpful, I think, in terms of the US approach to this. Which I have to say I believe was not as well constructed and organised as was SAGE, would be my view having seen both operating.

Lead Inquiry: So those specialists and scientists and professionals are, in terms of their own professional qualifications, mirror images of the constituent parts of SAGE, they’re not from other walks of professional life, they are there to challenge, if you like, the members of SAGE on their own turf?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: No, no, I wouldn’t – no, sorry. Let me clarify. I think in that sort of red group you could easily have a broader sector of society, civic society, industry, people, yes, with expertise and understanding of public health, but also others who would bring a different perspective.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Sir Jeremy, can I ask you now about your experience, please, of some of the more specialist scientific committees concerned with pathogenic outbreaks.

Have you had dealings over the years with HAIRS, the Human Animal Infections and Risk Surveillance committee, or ACDP, the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, or on the now abolished NEPNEI? Are those committees, although you weren’t in government, with which you’ve had any experience?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: No, I was not part of any of those. The greater experience I had was actually outside the UK, as you mentioned, being the founding chair of the WHO R&D Blueprint, advisory and WHO committees and other governments, but I was never involved in any of those that you mention there.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

You’ve referred in the course of your evidence to the growing risks of pathogenic outbreaks, particularly of the viral respiratory kind, and to the growing risks generally because of changes in our environment and our way of life. To what extent is it essential to meet those continuing and growing risks that we maintain as a country capability, that is to say the medical, scientific and social weapons at our disposal to meet a future pandemic?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: So I started off by saying what you have before a pandemic or crisis hits makes such a huge difference. There are many things to question and challenge, and that’s the role of the public inquiry in terms of the pandemic. But I think we can only celebrate the remarkable scientific – and by “scientific” I mean the broad sciences – contribution to the pandemic in the UK and around the world. That – you can’t turn that on in a crisis. You know, we didn’t make a vaccine in 12 months. We made a vaccine because for years before all governments in the UK, of any colour, I would argue as well the Wellcome Trust, the charitable sector, philanthropy, have invested in basic science, in people, in teams and institutions, and if you look through the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, if you look at COG-UK, building off years of work at the Wellcome Genome centre, if you look at the RECOVERY Trial, if you look at when local authorities and others through public health got involved in their communities, through ownership and knowledge of those communities, those were absolutely world leading. Those are the results of decades of investment in fundamental science and its translation, a brilliant regulator. And HRA now, and when it was part of the EMA, is one of the world’s if not the world’s best regulator. They were critical. Understanding ethics.

So this infrastructure in the UK is something the UK should be incredibly proud of, must maintain, and has a critical role to play internationally.

Lead Inquiry: Is that a capability without which it is impossible to scale up the necessary medical and clinical responses in the event of a pandemic? Is that something which must be maintained because, without it, we would not have the building blocks to be able to mount a defence in the event of a pandemic?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Absolutely agree with that. As I say, the vaccine was not made in a year. If you don’t maintain that capacity, and if that capacity isn’t valued, isn’t funded – it’s not providing value and utility all of the time. We should remember that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine came off a team, Sarah Gilbert, Andy Pollard and many others had been working on those vaccines, they’d been working on typhoid vaccines, they’d been working on meningitis vaccines and were able to pivot. The RECOVERY Trial built off years of investment, particularly from the National Institutes of Health’ research and the clinical trials capacity.

These are absolute jewels in the UK’s crown. They could play, in my view, a bigger role internationally, but you have to maintain them every Monday, every Tuesday, and you have to value them and they must provide value either in enhancing knowledge and our understanding of the world or in translation into products/countermeasures for people in a pandemic.

If we do not retain that scientific infrastructure, then the UK will be woefully underprepared to deal with today’s challenges and tomorrow’s inevitable epidemics.

Lead Inquiry: Does that infrastructure include matters such as having sufficient laboratory services, for example to be able to scale up mass diagnostic testing in the event of a new pandemic and perhaps a different testing device? What sort of laboratory infrastructure is required to be able to provide that building block to enable us to scale up in the next crisis?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: The testing capacity in the first three months of 2020 in the UK was woefully inadequate. It wasn’t possible to scale that up at the speed that was required and testing got way behind the speed of the epidemic. In epidemics and pandemics there is no point saying “We’re quicker than we used to be” if you’re slower than the speed of the epidemic, and if you get behind that curve, you’ll really struggle to catch up. Remembering that exponential growth, doubling time every two days means, even 48 hours later, you’ve lost – you’ve got behind the curve, and the data you have today is in the rear view mirror, it’s what happened yesterday that you’re seeing, not what happened today.

So unless you have that diagnostic capacity – I would personally like to see a much closer interrelationship between what we call public health, public health laboratories, clinical and NHS facilities, and the broad and very strong research environment in the UK.

Often these are almost competing with each other rather than seeing themselves as part of a common approach, and I think to forge together public health laboratories, local authorities, hospitals and clinical facilities, general practice, primary care and the research endeavour, and make sure that those are working together outside the pandemic and can much better work together in a pandemic, would be a huge progress in terms of our ability to have the resilience in the future.

Lead Inquiry: So drawing those threads together, Sir Jeremy, would you agree that both in terms of research capacity but also infrastructure, laboratories, technicians and the like, is vital –

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yes –

Lead Inquiry: I’m sorry, I hadn’t quite finished – it’s vital that capability is maintained for not just diagnostic testing but antivirals and also vaccines, to which you’ve referred? So this is a capability which must be maintained across the board for those three pillars, if you like, of pathogenic outbreak response?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yeah. I would actually add to that, the social science, the behavioural science must be integrated as part of that, not some separate thing that goes on in other conversations. But we must maintain that all the time.

The only way to maintain it, and if we’re not to repeat the lessons of all of the epidemics I mentioned at the start, the only way we can maintain this is if it is integrated into services and health provision, prevention and treatment every Monday, every Tuesday, every week, every month, because after every previous epidemic, after Ebola, the world said “Never again, we must build these capacities”, and sadly one or two or three years later a pandemic hasn’t happened and they start to be cut. So my view is, instead of creating yet more vertical structures that will somehow be there when a pandemic strikes, build it into systems that are of use every day, people are using them, they provide value to communities, and then they can pivot when it’s necessary.

If we look at COG-UK as a good example, established by Sharon Peacock, it was building off years of public interest in genomics and the Wellcome Trust’s genome centre and institutes like the Crick, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and others, Birkbeck, these are critical infrastructures, they’re providing value and utility all the time and they have, critically, the people who can pivot when necessary. We must not lose this capacity.

Lead Inquiry: Turning now, finally, to a more administrative or governmental angle, and the issue of countermeasures, is it your view that further work is also required to be done in terms of thinking about, evaluating, working out the consequences of the policy interventions with which we’re now all only too familiar, such as quarantining, social distancing, the efficacy of face masks, airport screening and so on, all of which, of course, came very much into focus during Covid, but perhaps have not been developed in terms of the thinking as far as they might be?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: Yes, I do agree with that, and having listened to some previous interventions and the concern that everything was based around a potential flu pandemic and no other thinking, the things I would say on that: flu remains the number one biggest risk, but we should be thinking beyond flu, in terms of a crisis management system that would be agnostic to what the event was, it could be respiratory, most likely, it could be sexual, it could be through the gastrointestinal – there’s all sorts of scenarios, and instead of getting plugged in to a single outcome which we feel comfortable with, perhaps more important is to think, whilst we will focus on flu, because it’s hugely important and is the most – the highest risk and it remains so, that nevertheless we must have a system which allows us actually to cope with whatever is thrown at us and have the resilience and the spare capacity and not the whole system stretched to its very limit in order not to be able to respond when the demand increases.

So I would like to think more broadly, more like an incident management group than a flu-specific group, without losing the knowledge that flu remains a huge – a huge risk to us all.

Those policy interventions that you talk about need a discussion at societal level. The word “lockdown”, none of us had heard of it before about February or March of 2020. The implications of it are huge, and longstanding. We should be able to debate those in the interepidemic periods and come to a societal discussion about what we’re going to prioritise, what we’re going to protect and what we may have to do in order to prevent an event like Covid-19 happening again.

Lead Inquiry: Sir Jeremy, thank you very much.

My Lady, I believe you granted permission to Welsh Covid Bereaved for an issue or issues surrounding the question of face masks to be explored through my own examination.

Sir Jeremy, could I return you, please, to the issue of face masks. The issue of face masks and their efficacy is very much going to be a matter for consideration in my Lady’s Module 2 in this Inquiry, because of course there was a huge debate about face masks once Covid had hit. But in the context of preparedness, may I ask you this: to what extent pre-Covid was the wearing of face masks an issue which was thought about, sufficiently developed, and views reached upon? And an associated question: to what extent was there, pre-Covid, a scientific consensus on the efficacy of face masks, putting aside how effective they actually were?

So was there a standing scientific consensus on the efficacy of face masks pre-Covid? And to what extent had thinking on face masks developed pre-Covid?

Sir Jeremy Farrar: I think in the UK that consensus did not exist, and the effectiveness as well as the efficacy of face masks I do not believe in the UK there was a consensus on that.

Having spent 20 – almost 20 years living in Vietnam through SARS and H5N1, and then watching very closely and being very involved in the responses in China, in Korea, in Vietnam and Singapore, four countries that had previously dealt with SARS-1 and with other emergencies, I think if you asked there, there was a clear consensus amongst the decision-makers, and indeed the scientists and healthcare workers, that face masks had a role in contributing to the public health intervention.

In public health there’s rarely a magic bullet. Public health – the analogy of the Swiss cheese model of having multiple interventions is crucial. If you’re expecting face masks to give you 95 protection against something, you won’t get it. But as part of a series of interventions which includes face masks, includes hand washing and includes clean air and spacing between individuals, and then when you have the countermeasures you’re talking about, diagnostic tests, treatment and vaccines, together they create a Swiss cheese model of what our public health is. Each one contributes a percentage. None of them on their own contribute enough to change the dynamic of a pandemic, but together they can have a very profound impact.

When you talk about countermeasures, often we talk about countermeasures in terms of therapeutics and vaccines and diagnostic testing, but countermeasures need to be seen in the full Swiss cheese model, they need to include social distancing, they need to include masks, they need to include hand washing, they need to include in other epidemic potentials other interventions, for instance, in HIV, condoms, et cetera.

So I think we would be wiser – and the evidence base on face masks, unfortunately whilst we had large clinical trials of therapeutics, the RECOVERY Trial, we had the vaccine trials, we missed an opportunity during the pandemic to gather robust, strong prospective data on non-pharmaceutical interventions, which are a critical component of any response to an epidemic and pandemic until you have those countermeasures that will then change the course of the pandemic.

So what I would plead for is we don’t see countermeasures just as something you inject into somebody’s arm or you take as a tablet, but we see countermeasures in a Swiss cheese model of public health which integrates them all and we find the evidence for how they work on their own and we find the evidence for how they work together.

Mr Keith: Sir Jeremy, thank you very much indeed.

Lady Hallett: Sir Jeremy, thank you very much indeed for your help, it’s been extremely interesting and we’re very grateful to you. Thank you.

The Witness: I wish you the very best with the public inquiry and offer all the support we can to it. The lessons must be learned and we must never be there again.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Mr Keith: My Lady, I think that we can proceed to the next witness straightaway. If somebody would be good enough to sever the link with Sir Jeremy, we will return to the witness box.

Lady Hallett: Just before Ms Sturgeon gives evidence I would like to apologise to those who were inconvenienced by the fact we didn’t call Ms Calderwood on Wednesday morning. It was due entirely to unforeseen circumstances, and I can assure people we gave everyone as much notice as we could, and as we got in fact. So apologies to anybody …

Mr Keith: My Lady, yes.

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Could the witness be sworn, please.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keith: Could you give the Inquiry, please, your full name.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Nicola Sturgeon.

Lead Inquiry: Ms Sturgeon, thank you for offering your assistance and providing it to this Inquiry. Whilst you give evidence, could you please remember to keep your voice up so that we may all clearly hear what you have to say, and also for our hard-working stenographer so that she can record your evidence.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Excuse me, my Lady, with your permission, would it be possible to say a few words by way of introduction?

Lady Hallett: You may.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Thank you.

I am appearing at this public inquiry for the first time and, as the First Minister of Scotland for the duration of the pandemic, I wanted to take a brief opportunity to offer my sympathies and condolences to all those who have suffered as a result of Covid-19. The pandemic may be over but for very many people that suffering continues to this day, and there is not a day that passes that I don’t think about that.

Secondly, I want to convey my thanks to all those who contributed to the national response, obviously to our health and care workforce but to all of those across the public, voluntary and private sectors, and of course to the general public who did everything that was asked of them and made extraordinary sacrifices.

Finally, my Lady, I know that every day the government I led did our best to take the best possible decisions, but equally I know that we did not get everything right. The learning from the pandemic is of critical importance, and this public inquiry has a central role to play in ensuring that those lessons are learned, and therefore I appreciate the opportunity to be here before you for the first occasion today.

Thank you very much.

Mr Keith: Thank you, Ms Sturgeon.

You say the first occasion because, of course, it’s known to my Lady but not necessarily the wider world that you will be giving evidence again before this Inquiry for the purposes of Module 2A, which will be the module that will be more particularly concerned with the response to the pandemic once, of course, it had struck.

Ms Sturgeon, you’ve provided, kindly, a witness statement, dated, I think, 19 April 2023. We needn’t bring it up but it’s a witness statement to which you have appended your signature and a statement of truth. Is that correct?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: You were, of course, as you’ve said, the First Minister of Scotland, but earlier in your career you were Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health, and, coincidentally, that was during the swine flu pandemic which hit the United Kingdom in 2009; is that correct?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: So you would have become familiar with the exquisite difficulties of dealing with the onset of a pandemic on a country, and familiar with governmental response?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Just to get our bearings, that pandemic, H1N1, as we’ve heard, was, by the general standards of these things, relatively mild, was it not?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes, indeed, milder, thankfully, than any of us had expected at the outset of it.

Lead Inquiry: There were some 1,500 hospitalisations in Scotland, fortuitously no deaths, I believe, but of course there were around about 17,000 deaths globally.

There may, therefore, be a limit as to what lessons could have been learnt from that milder pandemic, but the Scottish Government commissioned a paper, did it not, to review its own response to that pandemic?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: We did, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Was that a report or a paper that you yourself commissioned?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes, I believe I would have commissioned that as Health Secretary at the time.

Lead Inquiry: May we have, please, that paper on the screen, INQ000102936. It’s headed “Cabinet Sub-Committee on Scottish Government Resilience, Influenza (H1N1) Pandemic - Review of the Scottish Government Response”, and it was a “Paper by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing”. You were Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health, and therefore may we presume that was you?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I’d have to check the date of it to see whether I was still Health Secretary when that paper was produced, but I believe that would have been me, yes.

Lead Inquiry: I think the paper was produced in 2011. You were Cabinet Secretary for Health until 19 May 2011.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I was Cabinet Secretary for Health into late 2012.

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That would have been me in that case.

Lead Inquiry: Yes, you were Cabinet Secretary for Health until 19 May 2011, and then you became Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Cities Strategy thereafter?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Thank you for reminding me.

Lead Inquiry: Page 5 of the report refers, at the bottom of the page, to “Planning Assumptions”:

“Respondents recognised the limitations of modelling, however it was felt that it would have been helpful to have updated the planning assumptions more quickly to reflect the picture on the ground. In effect, reflecting the most likely scenario, rather than the worst case scenario. Respondents felt it would have been helpful for the process of testing the planning assumptions to be more explicit.

“The planning assumptions which were published did not hold much weight with responders on the grounds that they did not reflect what they were experiencing.”

Ms Sturgeon, these references to the planning assumptions and to national and local responders’ views as to how efficient or how useful they were, was that a reference to the broad governmental system by which risks are assessed, grouped together, and assumptions made for the purposes of planning as to how those risks should be addressed?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: So my reading of these paragraphs, and, forgive me, I would need to see these paragraphs in the context of the whole paper to be certain that what I’m about to say is correct, but certainly in relation to the second bullet point there, what that seems to me to reflect is something that was certainly true in the handling of the H1N1 pandemic, is that the pandemic did not unfold in the way that the plans and the modelling and the reasonable worst-case scenario estimates had indicated that it would, and that had relevance, I think, to what we learned about the strength and weaknesses of pre-pandemic planning.

So my reading of that is that that was a statement about the gap that opened up during the swine flu pandemic between what the plan told us would happen and what in reality happened.

Lead Inquiry: That issue, the divergence between risk assessment, plan, identification of response and the reality of a pandemic was an issue that continued to bedevil this area of strategy planning, did it not?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes, it did. I think that is fair comment.

I also, having now, in different capacities, as we have been covering, been involved in the response to two pandemics, I to some extent think that there is an inevitability about that being a problem that will always exist to some extent because, there is no plan that will ever completely replicate what happens in reality when a pandemic unfortunately confronts us.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

At page 11, relatedly, in the middle of the page there is this heading:

“Actions to be taken forward as part of the UK-wide Review into the influenza A (H1N1) response.”

Was that a reference to the review which was carried out in fact by Dame Deirdre Hine?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That would have been a reference to the Hine review, yes.

Lead Inquiry: “We will oversee the work of the Review Team through Scottish Government representation on the reference group. We will consider the implications for Scotland of the emerging findings, specifically those relating to …”

Then the bottom bullet point:

“Future iterations of the Pandemic Flu Framework.”

Was that reference to “Pandemic Flu Framework” a reference to the then pre-existing Scottish strategy for dealing with pandemic flu and also the prospective, the anticipated United Kingdom strategy for dealing with influenza pandemic, which we’ll come to in a moment?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: So I suspect that that would have been effectively both of those things, it would have been a reference to whatever pandemic flu framework was in existence at the time, the pre-existing Scottish Government one and then what became the UK-wide pandemic flu preparedness plan in 2011.

Lead Inquiry: Thereafter, Ms Sturgeon, as my Lady has heard in the course of evidence, under the four nations approach, the United Kingdom drew up and disseminated a new 2011 strategy, and that is or became the sole strategy for dealing with pandemics, and it was, of course, a strategy which, on its face, dealt only with influenza pandemic.

There was a commitment there in that review by the Scottish Government to keeping future iterations of the pandemic strategy under review, but to a very large extent that did not happen, did it?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: The 2011 four nations plan was not updated. Now, for that to have been updated on a four nations basis would obviously have required the engagement of all four governments. In my view, and this takes us to the heart of some of the most important lessons I learned from the swine flu pandemic, had that plan been updated I do not necessarily think it would have changed substantially. I think I heard Professor Sir Chris Whitty make a similar point to you last week. A review, refresh, different iteration of that would not have changed necessarily the fundamental assumptions or planning or modelling at the heart of it.

In brief, the two lessons that I took from swine flu in relation to plans were, firstly, and I’ve already touched on this, the importance of any plan being adaptable and flexible when it first confronts reality. In summary, what happened in swine flu was that as the pandemic, thankfully, turned out to be milder than we had anticipated, there was a period when the governments tried to make the pandemic fit the plan rather than adapt the plan to the pandemic. So flexibility is the first point.

The second point I guess relates to that, is the importance of whatever is on the paper in the form of a plan, there is work done to operationalise and test that plan.

I’m sure we’ll come on to some questions around Exercise Cygnus on a UK basis, Silver Swan on a Scottish basis, to a lesser extent because it was looking at MERS, SARS, rather than flu, Exercise Iris. But the work that was done through these exercises and the work that was done in Scotland by local resilience partnerships sitting underneath our regional resilience partnerships in my view was more important than having tweaked versions of a plan that was only ever going to be a template for the situation that we ultimately found ourselves dealing with.

Lead Inquiry: As it turned out, Ms Sturgeon, the reality was that the plan, the strategy, the 2011 document required not just tweaking – and it may well be that it wouldn’t have just stopped at tweaking had it been significantly revised – it was and has been described by a variety of different witnesses as wholly inadequate. Strategically. Do you accept that there is now a much clearer understanding as to the nature and the degree of the inadequacy of that document?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: So, yes, and if I may, I’ll perhaps try to break that down briefly into two parts –

Lead Inquiry: Please.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: – and perhaps give a little bit more explanation for my use of the term “tweak”.

Had a process to update that plan focused on updating an influenza preparedness plan, I can’t be sure about this, but I do not believe it would have changed significantly, because it would still have been a plan dealing with the potential for a flu pandemic. Had it been a process signed to turn a flu plan into a plan that was looking at a different range of pandemics, that may have been a more substantive exercise.

In terms of your question: do I accept that the plan was inadequate? In summary, yes, the plan was for a different type of pandemic than the one we unfortunately were confronted with. What I would say in addition, though, is that that does not mean no part of that plan was useful in any way, because some of the consequence planning for a pandemic – I mean, there are some, as we know and we’ll come on to, no doubt, today and in future modules, significant differences with significant consequences between flu and what we ended up dealing with in terms of a coronavirus pandemic. But some of the consequences were similar. So I would, I guess, push back a little bit against the notion that there was nothing in the flu planning that served us any purpose at all when it came to Covid-19.

Lead Inquiry: You would accept, I think, that there was no plan for non-influenza pandemic, at least on its own face; correct?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: No, that is absolutely the case. That is not to say that there was no thinking within governments around non-influenza diseases, you know, high-consequence infectious diseases. Exercise Iris, which was a Scottish Government exercise, looked at that specifically. What there wasn’t, and I think this is the significant gap, is there was no set plan, which, as I say, is not the same as saying there was no thinking, into how we dealt with a pandemic that had features and characteristics of flu in terms of transmissibility, but also the severity and the – what we came to understand in terms of the asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19.

So if you look at Exercise Iris, it was looking at a MERS/SARS type incident, but not a pandemic, one that was small and very contained.

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: So I would readily accept that there was a gap in terms of the pandemic we ultimately were dealing with, but, as I say, that does not mean the plan that was in place had no utility at all.

Lead Inquiry: No, and I’m not suggesting it had no utility. The plan on its face called for flexible –

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – application, it called for flexibility, it proclaimed the fact that viral respiratory pathogenic outbreaks are by their nature inherently unpredictable, and therefore that the plan should be applied to non-influenza pandemics. But there was no development of that thinking, was there, in the plan? There was no debate about what those inherently unpredictable characteristics might consist of, the differences in transmission rate, or viral load or severity or incubation period.

That’s correct, isn’t it?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That is correct. That said, and I – obviously I’m not a scientific clinical expert in any way, shape or form, but it may have been difficult to capture the range of possibilities that you – you’ve just alluded to there in a single plan.

I think the other point I would make about the utility or otherwise of plans, had the flu plan been reviewed and turned into something that was looking at pandemics or the potential pandemics more widely, whether that plan would have served its purpose would have depended on the capabilities that lay underneath that plan.

So I’m straying slightly perhaps into future modules here, but for me the questions in my mind, literally every day, are not so much did we lack a plan, but did we lack the capabilities for dealing with a pandemic of the nature of Covid-19. And obviously I’m talking there about contact tracing, testing, infrastructure in particular.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed. But you would accept, Ms Sturgeon, that had the plan focused more plainly, more clearly on the inherent unpredictability of viral respiratory pathogens and their characteristics, and identified that the next pandemic might have different characteristics to influenza, in terms of transmission rate, incubation period, viral load, severity, it is likely there would have been a much closer and clearer debate about the necessary countermeasures, for example mass diagnostic testing, mass contact tracing, social restrictions, quarantining and so on, and that debate was wholly absent, wasn’t it, from that strategy and from all the contemporaneous material?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Much of that, yes, was absent from that. So I do think that is fair, and yes, I – with retrospect and in hindsight, I think we would all have benefitted from much earlier discussion around some of these things. I suppose the only point I’m making, maybe this comes from too many years in government, not now obviously, is I think there is a real danger in putting an overemphasis on plans, there is a – there is often a tendency in government to say, “Well, we have a plan, it sits on the shelf, and so we’ve done the preparation”, and it’s what – as I think you’re putting to me fairly, it’s what lies underneath that, and had there been a plan that looked at the range of pandemics other than flu, then yes, it is possible that we would have had greater discussion around some of the elements that of course came very much to the fore when Covid struck.

Lead Inquiry: The reason I put the question to you, Ms Sturgeon, the way that I did was to respond to your suggestion that the strategic, acknowledged strategic flaws in the plan may not have mattered because what matters more is capability.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Absolutely.

Lead Inquiry: My point to you is: had there been a proper development of the issues of the required countermeasures necessary to meet properly identified risks of non-influenza pandemics in that document, that capability is likely to have been better developed by the time Covid struck?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I think that is fair, and I would accept that. I think it would come down to how precise some of those other –

Lead Inquiry: Of course.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: – predictions or models had been, but I think that is a fair comment to put to me.

Lead Inquiry: Your point about the danger in government of selecting a plan in the reasonable expectation that it will do what it says on the tin and it will meet the need of the exigency or emergency which has arisen, would you agree that that plan tended to focus upon managing the catastrophic consequences of a pandemic influenza as opposed to trying to prevent those catastrophic consequences from developing in the first place?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I’m not sure I do entirely agree with that, and again I’m perhaps straying from your question being anchored in the flu preparedness plan and projecting a little bit to some of the commentary that’s been made around the handling of Covid. I suppose – you know, there is a question in my mind, in the context of a pandemic, what do we mean by prevention. I think there is a question about whether any single country at a population level could prevent, ie stop, a pandemic happening. Clearly there are measures at an individual level that people try to take to prevent themselves getting it. But in the context of a pandemic, it is – and I can only speak for myself and the Scottish Government here – it was never the case when Covid struck that we just accepted as a given that a reasonable worst-case scenario was going to unfold. It was our determination from the outset to do everything we could, and I think that is what prevention means in the pandemic context, to suppress it to the maximum.

The questions I think that are really important for us all to consider very, very frankly is: could or should we have done more to suppress to the maximum Covid? But speaking on behalf of the government I led at the time, it was never the case that we simply accepted there is a level of harm that is going to be done by this virus and we accept that. We were always – in fact it became, later on, one of the points of difference between the Scottish and the UK Government, the extent to which we were still seeking to suppress as opposed to live with the virus.

So I don’t accept that there was ever, certainly in my mind, an acceptance of a level of harm that we were, you know, willing to have unfold.

Lead Inquiry: That was not, however, my question, Ms Sturgeon. My question revolved around the strategy and whether you accepted that one of the unintended consequences of that strategy was that it tended to focus administrative concentration on trying to deal with the consequences of a catastrophic emergency rather than preventing it in the first place.

For example, you’ve already acknowledged that the absence of thinking on the two main methods by which catastrophic consequences can be prevented, mass diagnostic testing and mass contact tracing, were wholly absent from this strategic debate?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: So forgive me if you thought I wasn’t answering your question, I was seeking to try to answer your question but I perhaps went on to Covid more than the flu plan.

I think one of your questions, which is reasonable, is the flu plan was looking at flu, and so some of what would have been in that plan had it been looking more widely was not there.

What I was seeking to address was this notion, either in the flu plan or later in Covid, that there was simply an acceptance of a level of consequence. I think, forgive me, I can’t remember the precise text in the 2011 flu plan, but I think there is commentary in it that reasonable worst-case scenario are not necessarily things you accept, they don’t take account of the countermeasures that you take to try to reduce that. So either in that plan or in the eventual handling of Covid, I – speaking from my own perspective, it was not simply a, “Here’s a level of consequence that we accept that we can’t do anything about”. I do think – and this goes to your point about mass testing and contact tracing – the question, very legitimate, is: could or should we have done more to put ourselves in the ability of suppressing?

It is also the case that I don’t think for any responsible government it can ever, in a context like this, be either trying to suppress or dealing with the consequences. You have to do both. And that is a feature of the planning as well.

Lead Inquiry: I’m going to put that over to Module 2A, Ms Sturgeon.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Forgive me.

Lead Inquiry: But in relation, therefore, to the strategy, we appear to be agreed that the strategy, because it proclaimed its ability to be applicable to non-influenza pandemics – whilst it proclaimed its ability to be flexible and applicable to non-influenza pandemics, simply did not provide the thinking or the tools necessary to be able to deal with them. I’m not asking you again about and I’m not seeking your answer in relation to how the Scottish Government did respond, and what its approach was once it was struck by the pandemic, but in terms of the strategising, the planning and the preparedness at an overarching level, that thinking and the development of the necessary tools was absent from the sole strategy document that was meant to be applicable?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I think that is fair, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Lady Hallett: We’re going to be breaking – I’m sorry, we have to take a break every so often, Ms Sturgeon, for the stenographer.

Would that be a suitable point?

Mr Keith: Very suitable, thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Right, I shall return at 11.30.

(11.12 am)

(A short break)

(11.30 am)

Mr Keith: So, Ms Sturgeon, having been harnessed to the 2011 strategy, Scotland was of course aware that that strategy was required to be refreshed or updated, and you are aware, are you not, that one of the workstreams which was assigned to the Pandemic Flu Readiness Board in London and to the Pandemic Flu Preparedness Board in Edinburgh was the job of updating that strategy, and it never came to pass?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: You agree that the reason why it never came to pass was that it was one of the workstreams which was recognised to be necessary to be done and, because of the diversion of time, energy and resources to the necessary preparations for a no-deal EU exit, it happened to be one of the workstreams that was paused?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes, that is correct. The prospect of a no-deal Brexit and the work that was required across all of the United Kingdom Governments to plan for Yellowhammer assumptions meant that a significant amount of time, energy and resource was diverted into that, from a range of other matters, and that was certainly one of the workstreams that suffered from that.

We may come on to this, I won’t go into detail right now, that is not to say there was not continued work in the Scottish Government to prepare for a pandemic, although, as we’ve already covered, much of that was in the context of a flu pandemic.

Lead Inquiry: As you’ve rightly acknowledged, and as your then Director of Safer Communities, Gillian Russell, accepts in her witness statement, a very significant amount of emergency planning time was spent on planning for a no-deal EU exit, and therefore something had to give, and one of the things that had to give was some of the work that was meant to be done for emergency planning.

May we ask you: to what extent was that difficult decision, the diversion of resources, debated at Cabinet level? It’s apparent from a large number of documentation that the necessary diversion was ventilated at an administrative level, was acknowledged and accepted, and officials just had to get on with the job in hand with the resources that they had. But to what extent was that brought to your attention for the ultimate decision as to whether or not that diversion of resources away from emergency planning was appropriate?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: So I was very aware of the necessity to divert resources from other priorities to plan for and look at the potential for a no-deal Brexit. It wasn’t the case, to the best of my memory, that somebody came to me and said, “We need to divert resources from pandemic preparedness to this”, but I would have known that there were many other aspects of emergency planning that had resources diverted from them.

The Scottish Cabinet discussed no-deal Brexit, Brexit generally and the potential for a no-deal Brexit on many different occasions. Brexit was obviously that was something happening completely against the will of the Scottish Government, so we were not at all happy about what they were having to do, but, to put it bluntly, we had no choice, because had a no-deal Brexit happened, and there were periods over 2019 where that was a distinct possibility, the consequences of that would have been very, very severe. The planning assumptions in Yellowhammer were grim, and extremely worrying.

So we had no alternative but to do that work to the best of our ability, and we have limited resources. All governments have limited resources. Within emergency planning we have, within that, limited specialisms and skills in particular areas. So it stands to reason that, with so much effort on that, there was going to be less resource available for other aspects of emergency planning.

Lead Inquiry: But resources were re-diverted from a number of different parts of the Scottish Government. It wasn’t, I imagine, that resources were only re-diverted from civil contingency planning?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: No.

Lead Inquiry: You had to find the resource and the time and the energy from somewhere in order to be able to do the necessary preparations for a no-deal exit?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: There was probably not, and forgive me if I’m slightly oversimplifying this here, but there would not be many if any areas of Scottish Government work that were not impacted by the planning for a – for Brexit generally and a no-deal Brexit. So, in health, other than in emergency planning, a lot of resource and energy looking at some of the supply chain distributions, the consequences for the health service staff of ending free movement across the European Union, and education, obviously, with universities around the education programme, so every part of our work was impacted by this and it was a matter of deep and extreme regret and frustration for us at the time.

Lead Inquiry: The risk of a pandemic influenza was a Tier 1 risk in the United Kingdom Government’s risk register. Presumably it was no less great a risk in the Scottish risk register. It was identified as the greatest risk facing the nation in the plethora of risks which any nation faces.

So would you agree that the diversion of resource and money and time from that issue, that area of planning for the greatest risk which the country faced, the Tier 1 influenza pandemic risk, was ultimately a false economy, because although the consequences of a no-deal EU exit would have been extremely serious and had to be mitigated, the one area from which it really couldn’t be said that resources should sensibly be drawn would be the no less significant area of pandemic preparedness?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I don’t disagree with that. I think every aspect of Brexit has been false economy, if I can put it mildly, but that’s another issue altogether.

Lead Inquiry: Ms Sturgeon, I’m so sorry, that is a witness box not a soapbox, and we cannot allow –

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: – the political debates of Brexit to be ventilated here.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: With respect, I think you’re asking me questions here that are very germane to the whole issue.

So, yes, I think it was deeply regrettable that resources had to be diverted from any other area of work, and in particular pandemic preparedness. I also, though, would repeat a point I made earlier on, that it was – certainly from the Scottish Government perspective, it was not the case that all preparation around the potential for a pandemic stopped. I would imagine you will ask me later in the session about Exercise Silver Swan.

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That was one of the key elements of work in different work strands out of that, of course. So all of that was deeply serious. The point I’m making is that we had little alternative but to do that. The consequences of a no-deal Brexit compared to what we faced with Covid, of course, pale into insignificance, but at the time, looking at the Yellowhammer assumptions, had they come to pass they would have been severe. We were talking about availability of food and, you know, the shops and medicines for the National Health Service. So we had no choice but to do that planning. I deeply regret any implications that had for our emergency planning in other areas.

Lead Inquiry: Thank you, that’s very clear.

Just turning now to the broad issue of the relations between Scotland and Westminster in terms of preparedness planning, many of the recommendations which had come out of the Hine review, to which you referred earlier, insofar as Scotland was concerned and the other devolved administrations, revolved around the need for a proper framework for communication, both at CMO level, the Chief Medical Officer level, and the DCMO level, the need for perhaps a health forum across the United Kingdom in which there could be a proper informed debate at that level about pandemic preparedness, and also, of course, between the civil services of the devolved administrations. To what extent do you believe that the working relationships in relation to pandemic preparedness worked across the devolved administration in UK level?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I think they worked reasonably well in general terms. I think they remained too ad hoc, and didn’t become, as the Hine review would have recommended, more embedded in a very systemic way. I know, and this was certainly true at the outset of Covid, the working relationship between the four CMOs was very good and very strong and Scotland’s CMO at the time fed lots of information and thinking from those discussions into the decisions we were taking. Discussions and relationships between health ministers would vary, I think, from my perspective over the years. Often, as will sometimes be the case, depend on the individuals concerned, which is more of a feature when they are ad hoc arrangements rather than embedded.

Overall, though, I think, in the context of intergovernmental relations, work around – in swine flu and from swine flu, leading up to the beginning of Covid, I think relatively speaking they worked well.

Lead Inquiry: Presumably an informal system of communication depends too much on personal inclination, personal relations and perhaps ministerial whim as to whether or not the meetings take place. Did you ever get to the point where you believed that there had to be a significant effort made to formalise those working relationships, or did it never get to that state?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I think it frequently gets to that stage in various discussions, and in this context, yes, I think it would be better if we had working relationships that were more systemised and embedded and that would then transcend different individuals.

That said, processes will not work, however embedded they are, if they don’t have good faith and the right mindsets and attitudes behind them. So in terms of the working between the four nations in this context or indeed any context, it’s a combination of all of these things that is required, but certainly more of an embedded structure that is then respected by all of the governments at play I think would be a step in the right direction.

Lady Hallett: Ms Sturgeon, how do you get past – I don’t know if you heard Jeremy Hunt come out with a brutally frank answer, which was that when he was Secretary of State for Health here, for England, he found that party politics got in the way of the relationship between ministers for health in the various administrations?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: So I think that can happen and I think it has happened. I also think it’s possible to overstate the extent to which that happens.

In my experience, forgive me, just briefly to go back to swine flu, I, as Scottish Health Secretary at the start of swine flu, Alan Johnson was Health Secretary for England, then replaced by Andy Burnham, I had a very good working relationship with both of those, and different political perspectives at play there. So I think if the attitudes and the mindsets are correct, particularly in the context of a health emergency, political differences shouldn’t get in the way, but of course that is going to depend from time to time on the different personalities involved.

And – forgive me, I’m not going to stray off the topic here, but inevitably that will be influenced, it shouldn’t be, but it will be influenced by the wider political context at the time, and perhaps Brexit has an impact there in terms of setting the overall tone for some of these intergovernmental relationships.

Mr Keith: You lent your considerable authority to a review of United Kingdom and national intergovernmental relations, did you not?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Post-Covid, there is now a structure which provides, I think, for a devolved governments council, for interministerial groups to meet. I think there is an interministerial standing committee, or some sort of committee, and a secretariat, intergovernmental relation secretariat.

Do you know whether or not that committee structure has borne fruit yet? Is it something which, as First Minister, you attended whilst you were in office?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Those new arrangements are very much in their infancy and were even more in their infancy while I was still First Minister, so I think in many respects it remains to be seen the extent to which they improve the overall working relationship.

I come back to a point I made earlier. I think systems and processes are really important, but they will only work if all of the parties participating in them participate in the right spirit and attitude, and that, in intergovernmental relations, is often where it breaks down, and I’ve been, as First Minister and for years before that as Deputy First Minister, involved in a range of different iterations, joint ministerial councils, these new arrangements, and they will work if everybody around the table is there in the right spirit.

Lead Inquiry: My Lady heard evidence from Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, about how both before but I think boosted by the national Resilience Framework and its publication by the United Kingdom Government in December 2022, there had been set up a UK resilience forum to discuss important issues relating to cross-United Kingdom resilience and civil contingency arrangements. The Scottish Government attended the first UK Resilience Forum, as did UK ministers, on 14 July 2021, but the Scottish Government was absent, it’s listed as an absent participant, in May 2022 and February 2023. So it missed – it has simply not attended two of the three UK Resilience Forum meetings. Do you happen to know why that is so?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I don’t know for certain that it is the case, I appreciate you’re – but I understand there may be some dubiety about whether we were in fact present on one of these occasions, but that’s not something I can answer for you with certainty –

Lead Inquiry: Well, you were present on the first meeting –

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: The Scottish Government was present, I personally wasn’t present. I understand from my own colleagues that there is some uncertainty as to whether we were present at the second one or not. I know the minutes suggest that we weren’t, but that’s not an issue I can resolve for you right now.

That resilience forum I think is an important opportunity for the four nations to come together. Its remit, although again it’s a forum in its relatively early stages, seems to be similar to, perhaps not identical to the Scottish Resilience Partnership, which is also a strategic overview. So certainly the ability to have a four nations forum that our own operations can feed into is certainly a useful one. I cannot answer why the Scottish Government – I can get that information for you, I cannot answer here why we weren’t present, if indeed we weren’t present, but that is something I would certainly encourage ministers now to take part in.

Lead Inquiry: Thank you.

The minutes, I should say, for both 3 May 2022 and ‘23 do state in terms that the Scottish Government was wholly absent.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Can I say, I wasn’t questioning that particular point.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Now, the exercises, Silver Swan, Cygnus and Iris. The Exercise Cygnus exercise was a United Kingdom exercise delivered by Public Health England. It wasn’t, therefore, focused centrally on Scotland. Scotland played an important part and attended it, and members of the Scottish Government were present during the exercise itself.

Do you recall, whilst First Minister, debate about the extent to which the recommendations from Exercise Cygnus had been implemented? There is evidence, I should say, before my Lady that on a UK level many of the recommendations were by the time of Covid not implemented wholly. Some were in part implemented, some were not implemented at all, some were complete.

What was the position with Scotland?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: As I understand it – so the first part of your question, would I have had an awareness, I would have had a general awareness of exercises and the Scottish Government working to implement recommendations that were relevant to us. I wouldn’t have been closely involved on a day-to-day basis with that in detail. My understanding is that of the, I think, 22 recommendations out of Exercise Cygnus, the Scottish Government assessed all of them for their applicability or relevance to Scotland –

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: – and I believe at the time Covid struck us there were 14 of those complete and eight outstanding. Some of those would have been for the UK Government to take the lead on. I believe one on social care was paused by the UK Government due to Brexit, something we’ve already discussed. There was another around pandemic guidance that the UK Government was to take the lead on, but that hadn’t been progressed.

I think the other point I would make about this is, and in relation to both those recommendations that I’ve mentioned, there would have been analogous recommendations in Silver Swan that Scotland was pursuing. So, on –

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: – social care there was a recommendation there about social care contracts, business continuity, that we had considered complete, and in terms of pandemic guidance, with one exception – which was updated guidance for health and social care that had been out for consultation at the end of 2019, but other than that – the recommendations in Silver Swan for updating guidance had been taken forward.

Lead Inquiry: In relation to Exercise Iris, that was a one-day exercise, was that a tabletop exercise?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes, it was.

Lead Inquiry: That was a Scottish exercise?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In March of 2018. Was that the exercise that was concerned with an assumed outbreak of MERS?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: What, Ms Sturgeon, was the outcome of that exercise in terms of the implementation of recommendations?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That was very much ongoing at the time Covid struck. Obviously that exercise was the latest of the three that we’re referring to right now, I think took place in 2018. There were, I think – of the 13 recommendations in it, there were four that had been completed, a number, two I think, that were ongoing, and then some others were paused when Covid came along, for – when we look at some of them, for understandable reasons, because the system was dealing with a real pandemic at that time and it would not have made sense to go forwards in a separate track with the recommendations from Iris. But Iris, partly because of when it happened, is the one where, at the outset of Covid, there were most of the recommendations still outstanding. Or more than in the other exercises.

Lead Inquiry: I think it’s fair to say, Ms Sturgeon, that there were no single workstreams which were of great importance which were wholly uncompleted. So although there were, I think, three areas where work had not been completed, other aspects of those workstreams had been completed.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Are you still referring to Exercise Iris?

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So in relation to, I think, updating guidance in relation to MERS CoV, which obviously is not of great significance, perhaps, in terms of dealing with Covid, certain work to do with readying NHS boards to deal with the potential impact of contact tracing and community sampling during an HCID outbreak, and also finishing off the fit testing for particular types of PPE; were those the broad areas that were still outstanding?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes, that is correct, and some of the PPE recommendations around fit testing initially came from Silver Swan, but there were similar recommendations out of Exercise Iris as well.

Lead Inquiry: Coming back to Silver Swan, which I acknowledge was before Iris, but the reason I’m coming to that last is for the importance of one of the workstreams which came out of Silver Swan, the – I think of the 17 recommendations, 13 were considered by the Scottish Government to be complete, but an important area was pandemic guidance for the health and social care sector. Was that ever completed, even though Silver Swan was in 2015?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: The specific guidance for health and social care had not been completed, it was out for consultation at the end of 2019, and therefore hadn’t been finalised and signed off. The recommendation in Exercise Silver Swan around pandemic guidance, though, incorporated more than that one piece of guidance, and all of the other aspects that we took forward had been completed. So NHS standards for organisational resilience had been published and reviewed. Guidance on dealing with mass fatalities, guidance on death certification, pandemic flu guidance for infection prevention and control and pandemic flu communications guidance, these other bits of guidance had been completed. The one outstanding part was the response and guidance documentation for health and social care, which was still at the consultative stage.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. That was an important part of Silver Swan. It wasn’t complete by the time of Iris, and it wasn’t complete by the time of Covid four years later?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Is that primarily why the Auditor General of Scotland reported in February 2021, in the report NHS in Scotland 2020, to the effect that the Scottish Government could have been better prepared to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, it based its initial response on the 2011 strategy, which we’ve debated, but did not fully implement improvements identified during subsequent pandemic preparedness exercises, it was that issue of the failure to complete the work done in the adult social care sector that led to that conclusion?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I wouldn’t want to speak for the Auditor General, in saying what led to those conclusions. I would say my view would be that that would be part of it. I think – I know there were other issues raised in the Audit Scotland report that you refer to around PPE, PPE availability and distribution, so I wouldn’t – I’m not sure I would agree that was the only issue that led to those conclusions but certainly it would have been one of them. Perhaps for completeness I should say that that Audit Scotland report also did comment that the Scottish Government responded quickly to Covid when it confronted us.

Lead Inquiry: Ms Sturgeon, that of course is an issue of response, which you and I are both aware we’re not addressing, we’re dealing with preparedness.

I may have been a little unfair because paragraph 46 of that same report concludes:

“As a priority, the Scottish Government should update and publish national pandemic guidance for health and social care.”

From which we deduce that that was the area that was outstanding. Has that guidance now been published, do you know?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I do not believe that has yet been published, but, you’ll forgive me, I’ve not been in the Scottish Government for three months now, and I think the Audit Scotland report reflected this, there is a real importance in ensuring that that guidance which had been out for consultation before Covid fully reflects the learning from Covid.

Lead Inquiry: But, Ms Sturgeon, that report was issued in February 2021, you ceased being First Minister on 28 March of this year; during that elapse of two years while you were First Minister, was that national guidance for the health and social care sector published?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: No. I – again, I can only give an opinion here. I think, from my experience, to have published guidance without properly assessing some of the lessons – we also commissioned and established a Standing Committee on Pandemic Preparedness, and I think it is important – the health service in Scotland, as I’m sure is the case in the other nations of the UK, has lots of guidance that it operates within and that it takes cognisance of. In terms of pandemic guidance, I think it is really important that there is a proper fulsome exercise to incorporate the granular as well as some of the strategic learning from the Covid pandemic.

Lead Inquiry: To conclude, the reference to which you’ve just made, about a standing committee, is that the Standing Committee on Pandemic Preparedness, which is a permanent advisory group which you commissioned – it now sits permanently comprising scientists, experts, the CMO, the deputy CMO and others – to make recommendations for the better promotion of pandemic preparedness in Scotland?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Has that committee already issued an interim report, I think it did so in August last year, making recommendations about various aspects of pandemic preparedness?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: It issued an interim report that I responded to while I was still First Minister. I think it made three interim recommendations: one proposing a Centre for Pandemic Preparedness; another relating to the data and analytics infrastructure that we have and, in its view, should develop in Scotland; and a third around how we build and strengthen scientific advisory networks both within Scotland and across the UK and link into international organisations as well.

It is due in coming months to publish a more substantive report with longer term recommendations, as I understand it.

Lead Inquiry: There was a fourth: continued innovation in the sciences and public health research field?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Forgive me, that was the third one that I was referring to. Forgive me if that was the fourth and I’ve missed the third one.

Mr Keith: That’s all right.

Ms Sturgeon, thank you very much.

My Lady, would you give me one moment?

Lady Hallett: I think I’ve given provisional permission to Scottish Covid Bereaved to ask a question.

Mr Keith: My Lady has.

Lady Hallett: I confirm permission is granted.

Mr Anwar.

Questions From Mr Anwar

Mr Anwar: Good afternoon, Ms Sturgeon. I have a handful of questions left to ask on behalf of the Scottish Covid Bereaved.

In your evidence earlier you readily accepted there was a gap in terms of the pandemic you were ultimately dealing with, but that did not mean the plan had no utility at all.

So I’m going to refer you to the joint expert report that was provided – prepared for this Inquiry on health inequalities for Module 1 by Professor Sir Michael Marmot and Professor Clare Bambra.

I refer you specifically to INQ000195843, page 0064, paragraph 149.

I’m not going to take you through it, but to summarise, he concluded that:

“… with some exceptions, the specialist structures concerned with the risk management and civil emergency planning did not properly consider societal, economic and health impacts in light of pre-existing inequalities. The UK Government and the devolved administrations and relevant public health bodies did not systematically or comprehensively assess pre-existing social and economic inequalities and the vulnerabilities of different groups during a pandemic in their planning or risk assessment processes.”

So, Ms Sturgeon, the question is, do you accept that this analysis would also apply to the Scottish Government in their pandemic planning?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: In broad terms, yes, I would. I don’t think that we sufficiently, to use the terms there, “systematically or comprehensively” assessed social, economic health inequalities and, therefore, how we dealt with it in the context of a pandemic, so I think I would accept that.

Again, I don’t think it is right to go from there to say there was no planning and no thought given to that. Again, I won’t repeat it, I think some of this is narrated in the expert report that you’re quoting to me, the work that the Scottish Government had done starting, again when I was Health Secretary, around the Equally Well work culminating, in April 2020, in the establishment of Public Health Scotland, which is actually, in an organisational sense, one of the initiatives intended to build that systemic and comprehensive approach to, in particular, health inequalities into our planning work.

Mr Anwar: Thank you.

The second question is: to what extent, if any, did the Scottish Government carry out an equalities and human rights assessment of its pandemic preparedness plans?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: If I can answer in summary there, and offer to seek more information to be provided, because it is a question that would involve looking at lots of different aspects of planning.

The Scottish Government does and will have carried out different impact assessments of different aspects of our planning, both in preparedness and then as we went into the response phase to Covid. I don’t have all of the detail of that in front of me right now, but I can, through those in the Scottish Government, seek to have that provided if that is helpful.

Mr Anwar: Thank you, that would be helpful, and we would be seeking that information, asking the Inquiry to seek that information.

The third question, Ms Sturgeon, is to what extent, if any, were those plans assessed as to how they would affect the various protected characteristics, in terms of the Equality Act 2010, for example age, disability, maternity, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation, amongst others?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: Again, apologies if I’m repeating myself, that would have been part of impact assessments that would be carried out routinely on Scottish Government work and planning. Again, I will have to get you more detail of that in terms of the sort of granular information. Again, I am moving into the response phase here, but you will be aware, I’m sure, one of the things we did early on in the response phase was to set up an expert group on ethnic minority inequalities in order that, as we went through the response phase, we could make sure that we were adapting appropriately there.

But in terms of the detail of the impact assessments and protected characteristic assessments, as I say, I will seek, if the Inquiry would find it helpful, to have more information passed to it.

Mr Anwar: That would be helpful. Those are the answers to my questions. Thank you, Ms Sturgeon.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Mr Anwar.

It would be helpful if you could provide that information, Ms Sturgeon.

Can I just check, were you saying that it is your understanding that impact assessments routinely included consideration of protected characteristics?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon: I – forgive me, my Lady, I wouldn’t want to leave you with that – I’m not sure that that would not be an overstatement, so, again, I think the information I’m offering to have provided through the offices of the Scottish Government would answer that question for you.

Certainly that would be involved in impact assessments, but I wouldn’t want to attach more relevance to the word “routinely” than I feel confident to give you right now.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much.

Mr Keith: My Lady, rather than setting too great a hare running, it may help Mr Anwar if my Lady recalls for him that the evidence of Ms Lamb yesterday included a section dealing with the consideration by Scotland of health inequalities, and my Lady will recall that there was – in the course of evidence she referred to the Auditor General for Scotland’s report on health inequalities in 2012; Equally Well, 2013; the NHS Health Scotland’s Health Inequalities Policy Review, 2013; and then five public health reports between 2013 and 2022, which therefore provide the basis, along with the public sector equality duty and the Equality Act 2010 for the consideration of health inequalities.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Thank you very much indeed, Ms Sturgeon, that’s all for today.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: The next time we meet I suspect will be in Scotland. Thank you.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Ms Blackwell.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you, my Lady, the next witness is John Swinney.

Mr John Swinney

MR JOHN SWINNEY (affirmed).

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Ms Blackwell: Mr Swinney, may I begin by thanking you for the assistance that you’ve so far given to the Inquiry. You have provided a witness statement, which we can see at INQ000185352.

Thank you. Can we go to page 15, please.

Can you confirm, Mr Swinney, that that was signed by you on 5 May of this year, and it’s true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Mr John Swinney: That is the case, yes.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you very much.

May we have permission to publish?

Lady Hallett: Certainly.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you, my Lady.

We can take that down.

Mr Swinney, you held the position of Deputy First Minister in the Scottish Government from November of 2014 until March of this year; is that right?

Mr John Swinney: That is correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You began your political career as a Westminster MP for the North Tayside constituency from May of 1997, and you were then a member of the Scottish Parliament, first for North Tayside constituency from 1999 to 2011, and then for the Perthshire North constituency from 2011?

Mr John Swinney: That is all correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You also held the roles of Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth in the Scottish Government from May 2007 to May 2016, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills from May 2016 to May 2021, and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery from May 2021 to March 2023. Is that all correct?

Mr John Swinney: That is all correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I’d like to begin by asking you, please, about your ministerial responsibility for resilience, because as Deputy First Minister over the nine-year period, that was very much part of your portfolio, wasn’t it?

Mr John Swinney: That’s correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: What was the scope of ministerial resilience?

Mr John Swinney: Before I answer the question, would it be possible, my Lady, for me perhaps just to express at the outset of my evidence my sympathy to everyone affected by Covid and for the suffering that has been experienced, and also my appreciation to members of the public and our public service personnel who have done so much, along with colleagues in the private and third sectors, to sustain recovery.

In relation to the question, my responsibility for resilience was held essentially as an ultimate point of responsibility, I considered myself to be, in the government, responsible for resilience matters, accountable to the First Minister, and it was my role to make sure that Scotland had in place effective resilience arrangements.

Now, that didn’t mean that I did everything, because in one of the introductions to the Scottish Risk Assessment, for example, I make the point that resilience has got to be everybody’s business, so all aspects of government have to think through what are the resilience risks that are faced in their area of responsibility, but it was my responsibility to make sure that all of that was in as strong a position as it could be for any eventuality that we had to face.

Counsel Inquiry: Given that this was but one portfolio of many that you would have had your eyes across in the role of Deputy First Minister, do you feel that you had sufficient time to be able to devote to the subject of resilience?

Mr John Swinney: Life was always pretty hectic, to be honest, in all of the ministerial responsibilities that I carried out, but I did feel I had adequate opportunity to provide the strategic leadership to resilience issues that were required. But I stress that wasn’t a responsibility that meant I had to do everything. I was providing the direction, the strategy, the approach to be taken, but obviously motivating colleagues and all the relevant aspects of the Scottish government and our partners around the country to make sure that they were preparing properly.

Counsel Inquiry: Right. The reason that I ask you that question is, and you may be aware, that the Inquiry has heard from Sir Oliver Letwin who gave evidence to my Lady that there would be a benefit, in his view, of the UK Government having a senior Cabinet-level minister solely devoted full-time to a resilience portfolio. Do you think that that is necessary within Scottish Government?

Mr John Swinney: I think it’s a reasonable proposition, and one that is worthy of consideration, because I think we are – if I look back on my ministerial career, I spent 16 years as a minister, and I dealt with quite a number of resilience incidents across a whole range of different responsibilities and sectors. So – and as I look at some of the factors that are now affecting society, issues around about the climate, for example, I only think that resilience issues are going to become ever more significant and prescient.

Looking at some of the evidence that my Lady has heard in relation to the scenarios that can be faced as the world changes, you know, as the population rises, as climate change has its effect, there may well be a strong argument for the proposition that Sir Oliver Letwin has put forward.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to now ask you about a series of bodies and committees that were set up either just before or during your time in office, and I want to begin with the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Scottish Government Resilience, also known as CSC-SGoR, I think.

Now, the role of this particular committee was to give ministerial oversights to strategic policy and guidance in the context of resilience in Scotland; is that right?

Mr John Swinney: That’s correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: This committee met in preparation for emergency response and in order to keep abreast of matters related to promoting and improving civil protection and also preparing for special contingencies such as pandemic influenza. It was set up some considerable time ago, and indeed the last recorded meeting of it took place on 14 April 2010.

Now, I want to go to those meeting notes, please.

Which are at INQ000102935, thank you.

We can see the date there and present are yourself and also Nicola Sturgeon, and if we scroll down, please, we can also see others present, some of whose names have been redacted.

Let’s go, please, to page 7, and I’d like to look at paragraphs 11 and 12.

Now, of course, if we remind ourselves that 2010 was just after we had suffered the swine flu outbreak, we can see at paragraph 11:

“[Somebody present] introduced [a] paper … which analysed the implications of the lessons identified from the recent emergencies for the Scottish Government’s role in co-ordinating national emergency responses. He said that the requirement for SGoRR to be activated had greatly increased over the last 3 years, which included activation for the fuel shortages in 2008, the flu pandemic [that’s the swine flu pandemic] and an increasing number of weather related incidents. Scottish Resilience would shortly undertake a significant review of SGoRR’s capacity and its capability to support enhanced national decision making in the light of the lessons learned and this would include options for improvements in accommodation, IT, training, and staffing.”

Could we scroll down, please.

“12. He said that the lessons learned would also provide an opportunity to develop SGoRR as a national emergency information analysis and decision-making hub, which was in line with the shared services agenda and National Performance Framework. It was planned to have discussions with COSLA, ACPOS, and the Chief Fire Officers’ Association Scotland on the option of co-locating mutual aid coordination centres for police, fire and local authorities with SGoRR. Such coordination would enable organisations to share resources and allow for a more streamlined approach to the collection and analysis of information.”

Thank you. We don’t need to read in any further.

So this was a committee which, as of April 2010, not only was active and had been activated because of the national issues that had arisen, fuel shortages, pandemic swine flu, and also issues with climate change, but was also very much looking forward to providing a level of service in terms of what was being anticipated.

Do you agree that, as far as this meeting was concerned, it very much looked as if the committee was going to be busy?

Mr John Swinney: Yes, and the work that flowed from that over a number of years I think demonstrates exactly that point.

Counsel Inquiry: So why was this the last occasion upon which this committee met?

Mr John Swinney: Essentially what – the work that was all envisaged in the paragraphs that have been read into the record was all work that was then taken forward, but not with the necessity of the supervision of that particular committee.

We essentially developed structures which had – which involved the creation of a Scottish Resilience Partnership, which in a sense was living out the point that I made in one of my earlier answers, which was that resilience had to be everybody’s business. So we needed to have a range of different organisations very much engaged in the preparation of active resilience functions, many of which are listed in those paragraphs 11 and 12 that have been read.

So that work was taken forward through the Scottish Resilience Partnership. There was direct ministerial involvement in that. I would have attended a number of Scottish Resilience Partnership meetings to provide the strategic ministerial direction. And obviously, in the course of a range of different other incidents, because after 2010 we would have a number of other resilience incidents in which we were actively involved, we would essentially develop that work in practice.

Counsel Inquiry: I understand your answer that the work was taken forward by other bodies, but you will understand that the UK Government had an equivalent committee called the NSC(THRC), or the threats committee, that didn’t meet in person between 2013 and 2017, and then it didn’t meet in person thereafter. The Inquiry has heard that evidence already. Do you think that there is value now in this sort of committee being reconvened and regularly meeting in order to ensure that these matters are kept very much within the forefront of ministers’ minds?

Mr John Swinney: My first response is to say that I do genuinely feel that these issues are very much at the forefront of ministers’ minds. I can say to my Lady and the Inquiry, you know, these issues have kept me awake at night for many, many years, on different questions, whether it’s about winter weather incidents or about the pandemic flu. So they’re very much issues that have been under active management and handling by ministers, with active engagement on a proactive basis to identify threats and risks, because that’s what led to the production of the Scottish Risk Assessment for the first time in 2018, which was to try to calibrate the risks that we might face. But there may well be the need for a particular forum to look periodically, formally, in a recorded fashion, to take stock about where preparations happen to be.

I think one of the reasons why we felt this committee didn’t need to meet was that – if I go back to the attendance list at that meeting that you cited from 2010, that was – all members of the Cabinet were present there, apart from the then First Minister, so, you know, we had Cabinet meeting on a weekly basis which allowed us to conduct some of these issues as well.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, thank you.

I next want to ask you about the Scottish Resilience Partnership, which you’ve just mentioned. The first issue is to make sure that I’m addressing it by its correct title, because when I suggested yesterday to Gillian Russell, who set up the committee, that it was called the Scottish Resilience Partnership, she corrected me and said it was called the Strategic Resilience Partnership. Which is it, please, Mr Swinney?

Mr John Swinney: Well, at the risk of contradicting a civil servant, it is, in my view, the Scottish Resilience Partnership, but it has a strategic remit, if that perhaps helps to build the bridge.

Counsel Inquiry: Perhaps that’s where the difficulty arose.

But in any event, this was set up during your time in office?

Mr John Swinney: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: But it was restricted, wasn’t it, to Category 1 responders? Do you think that that was, in hindsight, perhaps too narrow a remit? Do you think it should have been extended to other bodies beyond Category 1 responders?

Mr John Swinney: I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t rule out the necessity to look at this question. I think it’s important to look at who those Category 1 responders are. So around the table of the Scottish Resilience Partnership would be the leadership of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, the Chief Fire Officer of the Fire and Rescue Service, the chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the chief executive of the Scottish Ambulance Service, and there will be others that I haven’t managed to remember off the top of my head.

So they would be representing a very broad cross-section of those who would have to deliver the resilience response, and, crucially, would have to make sure that appropriate preparations were being undertaken at a more local level, whether that was across the three regional resilience partnership areas in Scotland or the 32 local resilience partnerships representing each of the local authority areas.

So that body had to consider what might future threats be, and they had to make sure that we were developing the processes and the infrastructure that would enable us to handle any such circumstance should an issue arise.

Counsel Inquiry: How often were ministers involved in or in attendance at these meetings?

Mr John Swinney: Quite frequently. I certainly remember being personally at a number of these resilience partnership meetings, and that was to essentially – that attendance was to provide the direction of ministerial thinking.

So we would be considering – I can remember contributing to those discussions around a range of issues, some of which would be about pandemic flu, some would be about winter weather, some would be about cyber security, for example, which would be, you know, a number of the very live and topical issues that we’d be discussing.

Counsel Inquiry: In your witness statement to the Inquiry, you say at paragraph 9(sic):

“In the period running up to January 2020, the preparations for a pandemic were taken forward in Scotland as a combination of participation in the four nations activity across the UK and specific applications of this approach to the distinctive health and social care arrangements that reflected the devolved governance arrangements.”

And that:

“13. The approach of the Scottish Government would best be summed up as a pragmatic way of co-operating on a four nations basis …”

How do you say, Mr Swinney, that there was pragmatic co-operation between Scotland and the United Kingdom Government in terms of preparation?

Mr John Swinney: I think there would be – examples of that would be collaboration around some of the expert advice that would be available, so, for example, there would be representatives from Scotland that would take part in organisations such as SAGE, for example –

Counsel Inquiry: And NERVTAG?

Mr John Swinney: And NERVTAG. And we would gather expert information and advice to inform our own thinking within Scotland. So I would cite that as an example of where we weren’t trying to replicate what would be a very good and strong source of scientific advice and professional advice to government.

There would be co-operation around some aspects of procurement in relation to PPE, I think I recall. So – and then there would be other dialogue on a four nations basis where there really was no particular value in us undertaking a different and distinctive process.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, well, we’re going to come on and look at some of those. But whatever the political point that could be made about the devolved administrations and their connection and the strength of their connection to the United Kingdom Government, the truth is that pandemic planning was and ought to have been UK-wide as an effort, shouldn’t it, with each nation performing a role in a collective endeavour to prepare for a pandemic?

Mr John Swinney: I would say that, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So I don’t want to dwell upon it, because the Inquiry has heard evidence from several witnesses now about this, but I’m sure you will accept, Mr Swinney, that the UK influenza preparedness strategy of 2011 should have been updated prior to Covid hitting, but wasn’t updated?

Mr John Swinney: I’ve obviously heard that evidence, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Were you aware at the time when you were in office that there were plans afoot to update it but those plans in fact never came to fruition?

Mr John Swinney: I wouldn’t say I was specifically aware of that particular point, no.

Counsel Inquiry: You are aware, though, that a Pandemic Flu Readiness Board was set up –

Mr John Swinney: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – following the Exercise Cygnus recommendations, and one of the aspects of work for that board was to update this strategy. That work was eventually paused because of preparations for a no-deal EU exit.

Is it a source of regret for you, Mr Swinney, that on your watch that preparedness strategy was not updated?

Mr John Swinney: Obviously I would, in all circumstances, prefer to be able to achieve all of the commitments that were given to update material and to prepare accordingly. I think there’s very strong evidence of pandemic preparations in the strategies that were taken forward and in the work that was undertaken particularly within the health team within the Scottish Government that led on pandemic preparation for that to be the case. But there’s obviously aspects of work which have suffered as a consequence of what are the – in my experience, the inevitable congestion of multiple priorities that can often exist. And as the Inquiry will have heard, the preparations for a no-deal Brexit were a very real threat which had to be addressed and, as a consequence, some aspects of the work that was necessary to be undertaken for other areas of activity were not able to be completed.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I suggest, in addition to that, though, there appears to have been a sluggishness within the Scottish Government to implement aspects of not only the Exercise Cygnus recommendations but also those that had come from Exercise Silver Swan in 2016 and Exercise Iris in 2018? Because yesterday, during the evidence of Gillian Russell, we looked at some of the minutes from the Pandemic Flu Readiness Board from June of 2019, and some of the comments within those minutes expressed a surprise at how slow matters were progressing.

In addition to that, we have heard this morning from Nicola Sturgeon that so far as guidance for health and social care is concerned, there was a recommendation for that to be updated as far back as the Exercise Silver Swan report in 2016, and she has confirmed to the Inquiry this morning that when she left office in March of this year that had still not been implemented. So that is guidance and recommendations from several years ago.

Do you agree that that demonstrates an alarming sluggishness for the implementation of what are important recommendations?

Mr John Swinney: I think that there is a significant amount of guidance available in relation to the preparation for and the handling of a pandemic, and that guidance would be shared with health boards who would carry the responsibility for many of the actions that would be envisaged in such a plan.

The question – so there would be an element of guidance that would be available. There was perhaps a – well, there is a requirement from the commitments given here for that to be strengthened and advanced.

So it wasn’t that no guidance was available, it’s that perhaps updates were not provided in a timeous period for that, so –

Counsel Inquiry: Seven years.

Mr John Swinney: Yes, but –

Counsel Inquiry: No update within seven years to that guidance.

Mr John Swinney: But there would be other work that would be undertaken through the successive exercises between Silver Swan, Cygnus and Iris, which would be helping with the learning in different organisations as those exercises took their course and as professionals saw the sequence of events that were being under – that were unfolding.

So there was a source of information to assist in the strengthening of guidance, but the final material was available for consultation around about the time when the Covid pandemic struck.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

It doesn’t give the impression that those recommendations were being speedily addressed, does it?

Mr John Swinney: There’s a lot of work been undertaken, but I think what I would have to concede is that there are multiple priorities that are difficult to wrestle with, within government, and I’ve – I don’t want to labour the point, but other events come along that unfortunately slow things up, and no-deal Brexit is one example, there would be other incidents that would happen, there would be other events that would happen in the sequence of events, that perhaps would mean that all the timetables we wanted to complete were not able to be completed as we would wish.

Counsel Inquiry: From your perspective, Mr Swinney, what was the impetus and purpose behind a Scottish Risk Assessment being implemented?

Mr John Swinney: I would say its purpose was to take the learning that we had from the UK-wide risk assessment and to ensure that it was tailored in any way that was appropriate for it to be tailored to the specific circumstances within Scotland.

Now, that would be more relevant on some of the challenges we would face in relation to winter weather, for example, which would be perhaps a more acute challenge for us than other parts of the United Kingdom. But its purpose and its objective was to be complementary to the United Kingdom National Risk Assessment.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Can we put up, please, the Scottish Risk Assessment for 2018. It’s at INQ000102940. Thank you.

If we look to page 3 – thank you – we can see your smiling face there, Mr Swinney, together with, if we look on the right-hand column, your personal feelings about the implementation of this assessment:

“I feel very strongly that resilience is everyone’s business. Our combined efforts to protect our society are the test of our resilience; the ongoing safety and security of our communities is the measure of our success. Building a shared understanding of the risks we face in Scotland is vital if we are to do this successfully.”

Does that accurately depict how you felt at the time that this was implemented?

Mr John Swinney: Yes, it does.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I don’t want to again cover evidence that the Inquiry has already heard, but you will I think agree, Mr Swinney, that so far as risk assessments are concerned, there is a risk assessment for pandemic influenza and there are risk assessments for high-consequence infectious diseases, but nothing in between, and the evidence that the Inquiry has heard is that consideration should be given to multiple scenarios or a spectrum of risks and that, going forwards, the risk assessments both nationally and also within the devolved administrations should concentrate on a much wider variety of what those risks should be?

Mr John Swinney: I think that’s a reasonable point. I think the – in the compilation of the Scottish Risk Assessment an effort was put in to try to ensure that we addressed the range of circumstances that we might face and, if my memory serves me right, I think in this risk assessment we identified and prioritised ten within that report. But obviously within that there are a multiplicity of different scenarios on each and every one of those themes.

So, to go back to this risk assessment, we would identify – I think we probably identified pandemic flu and winter weather as the two highest and most likely risks with the greatest degree of impact. Within those, there would be countless scenarios that might well be considered, and I think part of the challenge in all of this work is to be able to satisfactorily identify just how many scenarios it might be possible to consider, and then whether to prepare for them, because they will require a very different response. Of course, all of that stands to be very resource-intensive in the process.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Or to have a plan that is flexible enough to deal with different levels of or types of transmission and incubation periods and that sort of thing.

The Inquiry has also heard that there is a doctrinal issue with the way in which the reasonable worst-case scenario is unmitigated and encourages those planning for risks to plan for the consequences rather than for preventing them. Do you agree with that?

Mr John Swinney: I think the doctrinal approach in resilience, I think, is certainly focused on trying to mitigate the impact and to secure recovery as speedily as possible, but I don’t think that does justice to the wider perspective within government which – certainly in the Scottish Government – lays a very heavy emphasis on prevention.

So, you know, in so many aspects of Scottish Government policy, there is an emphasis on early intervention and prevention to avoid damaging circumstances emerging, whether that’s on policy questions such as child poverty or early learning interventions. But it has an application to some of the resilience questions as well.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, I’d just like to look at a different document, please, in order to explore your answer to that question in a little more detail.

Could we put up INQ000087205, please. This is a minute from the meeting of the Pandemic Diseases Capabilities Board in April of 2022, so it’s after the pandemic but I’d like to just look at the analysis here of preparation in order to better inform us of how we really should be considering preparing for any future pandemic.

Can we go to page 4, please, and look at paragraph 16. Thank you.

“Further, in line with the National Security Risk Assessment … methodology, revised pandemic reasonable worst case scenario models … represent unmitigated scenarios and so do not include a full risk assessment for the use of NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions]. Given that the imposition of lockdown in part accounted for a 25% drop in GDP between February and April 2020, the largest drop on record, and numerous secondary and tertiary impacts on all sectors, this represents a significant gap in the UK’s assessment of pandemic risk. Noting that, even without government intervention, we would anticipate spontaneous behaviour change and subsequent economic damage. What is more, the secondary and tertiary impact of these measures will have been unevenly spread throughout society, highlighting – and in areas exacerbating – pre-existing inequalities.”

If we can go to page 5, please, and then look at recommendation 2.1, this recommendation is that:

“All departments to use the outputs of recommendation 2 to produce a supplementary risk assessment to the NSRA that assesses the impacts of public behavioural changes on their sectors. The outputs of this work should be reviewed by ministers with a view to determining which behavioural changes fall within an agreed ‘Response Ambition’ that will provide clear planning assumptions to enhance cross-government preparedness arrangements for future NPI deployment.”

Then if we can go down to read through paragraphs 18 to 20, please:

“18. The unprecedented use of NPIs and significant changes in public behaviour seen during the Covid-19 pandemic required the provision of far greater economic support than pre-Covid planning assumptions suggested.

“19. The planning assumptions in the 2011 UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy focused on the economic impacts of sickness absence. As a result, the strategy did not include many of the significant economic impacts we have seen during this pandemic, such as the dramatic drops in economic activity, significant shifts and reductions in consumer spending and disruption to global supply chains. The OBR’s Fiscal Risks Report from July 2021 suggests the UK’s real GDP declined by an unprecedented 9.8% in 2020 and as of September 2021, the NAO estimated the lifetime cost of government spending on Covid-19 will reach £370 billion.

“20. Clearly then, in line with recommendation 2.1, our economic risk assessment for pandemics must be updated to include a broader range of impacts, including the significant potential impacts of NPIs and behavioural changes on different sectors of the economy.”

So not only was much of the planning and preparedness concerned with preparing for the reasonable worst-case scenario, not preventing it from arising, but it would appear that planning was never really designed to deal with the fallout of any of the countermeasures that might be taken to prevent or cope with the reasonable worst-case scenario; do you agree?

Mr John Swinney: I think it’s difficult to – and this gets to the heart of so much of the assessment work that has got to be undertaken here – to identify what might well be the range of impacts that have to be wrestled with in any particular scenario, and then of course the more scenarios that we consider, the broader the range of variables that there will be.

But I think what the material that has been read I think fairly highlights is the very significant wider impact of the pandemic and its effect on our society, and, you know, as I – and we may well come on to this in other modules of the Inquiry’s work – but after we took the steps to, you know, the most immediate steps in March 2020 in relation to lockdown, I led a lot of work within government which was about trying to essentially reconcile much of this information as to how we then worked our way back out of that, and it became known as the “four harms framework”, where we looked at the direct Covid harm, the indirect Covid harm, the economic and the social harm that was being caused, and how we evaluated what was the right amount of risk to wrestle with, I suppose, in terms of trying to get out of a situation of lockdown. So, in a sense, I offer that information to try to illustrate that the dilemmas that are involved very much in this material were dilemmas that we were wrestling with, but I would concede that we were wrestling with them after lockdown had commenced, not before.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, but going forwards, what we’ve just read into the record become part of pandemic planning, shouldn’t it?

Mr John Swinney: I would say it needs to, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Mr Swinney, I’m afraid I’m not going to finish your evidence before the break, which we have to take in a couple of minutes, but before we do break I’d just like to ask you one more question, because you were Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth for nine years.

Mr John Swinney: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: What are your views on the fact that, as a result of what we’ve just discussed, there was no real financial pandemic planning put in place for support or countermeasures?

Mr John Swinney: If I answer that in relation to the context I was dealing in, which is within the Scottish Government, I suspect your question, Ms Blackwell, might be getting towards: well, why didn’t you have a reserve to deal with these circumstances? And as I think a number of evidence – witness statements have provided this detail to the Inquiry, that was not within my gift to create. The financial arrangements of devolution essentially required the Scottish Government to balance its budget on an annual basis, and any resources that are carried forward are only carried forward on a very limited basis from one financial year to the next, so we are specifically, by the financial – the Scottish Government is specifically prevented from building up a reserve that it can deploy for eventualities of this type. That’s a commentary on the existing financial arrangements that exist within the Scottish Parliament.

Now, what I would acknowledge, and I’ve acknowledged this publicly on many occasions, that the scale of the economic intervention made by the United Kingdom Government in and around about March 2020 and thereafter was very welcome, from my perspective. It saved, you know, many people’s livelihoods from, you know, great jeopardy, but it is an illustration of the scale of the financial challenge that comes with a disruptive pandemic of this nature.

Ms Blackwell: All right, thank you very much.

My Lady, is that a convenient moment?

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much. Sorry we can’t complete you this morning, Mr Swinney. I shall return at 1.45, please.

(12.45 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: Ms Blackwell.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you, my Lady.

Mr Swinney, the first topic I want to ask you about this afternoon is intergovernmental relations, which is something that was touched upon by Ms Sturgeon in her evidence this morning, and for you to confirm that, in relation to the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004, there was a concordat between the United Kingdom Government and Scottish Ministers that was published in February of 2021, which was an agreed framework for co-operation between Scottish Ministers and the UK Government, not a legally binding agreement but with an expectation that each party would abide by it wherever practicable. Is that right?

Mr John Swinney: It exists, yes, but I think the date is much earlier than 2021.

Counsel Inquiry: Did I say 2021? I meant 2011, I’m so sorry. I’m glad you picked me up on that.

Mr John Swinney: Yes, yes. I think it may even be earlier than that.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, February of 2011 is the date that I have here, but we can check that.

In any event, it came into force, I use that word loosely because, of course, there was no legal binding nature attached to it, but an expectation that the Scottish Ministers and the UK Government would abide by it, and effectively from that date, if indeed from before, if you think that the agreement might have extended back beyond that date, Scottish Ministers agreed that certainly the spirit of the Civil Contingencies Act would be followed, and from that time Category 1 and Category 2 responders were identified, as indeed happened in England?

Mr John Swinney: Yes. The reason why I was just being a bit precise about the timescale is that I do have a concordat which was – pre-dates our government coming to office in 2007, so it must have followed, I think, some time soon –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr John Swinney: – after the passage of the Civil Contingencies Act in 2004.

Counsel Inquiry: In 2004, yes.

Mr John Swinney: So those arrangements were –

Counsel Inquiry: Were already in place?

Mr John Swinney: Were already in place, and they, for example, envisaged the designation of – envisaged – they require the designation of an individual within the Scottish Government to be, at official level, a key resilience person, if I could use that terminology, and that was always followed through. So just so that I was clear about the document.

Counsel Inquiry: No, thank you very much.

In 2013, in fact, there was a memorandum of understanding and supplementary agreements between the United Kingdom Government and all of the devolved nations, with the intention of the devolution settlements having enduring qualities of good communication, et cetera, wasn’t there?

Mr John Swinney: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So there were these agreements in place from, I’m going to suggest, soon after devolution happened, which always attempted to propel along a good natured agreement and good communication between the nations?

Mr John Swinney: That’s correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

But we know that, after the onset of Covid, and commissioned by the four heads of government, there was a review of intergovernmental relations, and we know that because a report was produced dated January of 2022, and I think that was referred to during this morning’s session.

Michael Gove, who will be coming to this Inquiry to give evidence at a later date, who is currently Secretary of State for DLUHC and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, has told the Inquiry in his written statement that at the time of the pandemic it was apparent that the broader matter of intergovernmental relations was not clearly agreed and there were difficulties encountered in relation to communication, but also matters of substance.

Does the fact that the four heads of state commissioned the review of intergovernmental relations suggest that Michael Gove might be right, that the practical difficulties that were encountered when Covid hit, in terms of communication and substance, indicated that further work needs to be done in terms of the way in which the nations work together in an emergency?

Mr John Swinney: I wouldn’t say that the working arrangements in an emergency were particularly poor. I think there was generally a pretty good amount of co-operation when we were operating in an emergency. In that respect, I’m going a way back to my period since 2007, generally when there was a difficulty and we were perhaps involved in a COBR call, which is a UK emergency call, there would be, you know, a lot of reasonable, practical engagement in an emergency context.

But the reason why that process had to be undertaken to form an agreement about how we were all going to operate was that generally relationships between the administrations were pretty poor by that point. Poor in the aftermath of Brexit, because obviously constituent parts of the United Kingdom – well, we were – in Scotland we were not happy with Brexit at all, or not happy with the – and you obviously had to spend a lot of time on the no-deal Brexit, as the Inquiry heard this morning from Nicola Sturgeon. But generally relations were pretty poor.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Mr John Swinney: Therefore there was, you know, a necessity to try to formulate some working basis upon which intergovernmental relationships could be improved.

Counsel Inquiry: So, moving forwards in terms of preparing for future pandemics or future civil emergencies, any level of clarity as to how communications and matters of substance should be taken forwards between the four nations would be welcomed?

Mr John Swinney: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Just in case an eagle-eyed commentator spots it, I think you, by slip of the tongue, said four heads of state.

Ms Blackwell: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that, the heads of government.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you.

I want to move on now to ask you about the level of engagement, community engagement, between the Scottish Government and local government and also the Scottish Leaders Forum.

Mr John Swinney: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You tell us in your witness statement that one of the hallmarks of the operating approach of Scottish Government during the period that this module is interested in was to engage widely with other public authorities, public bodies, business and third sector organisations to create a sense of common purpose in your endeavour, and you tell us that that was achieved through forums such as the Scottish Leaders Forum, which brings together senior public sector leaders from across Scotland, has regular dialogue with major business representative organisations, and interaction with a representative range of third sector organisations.

Tell us how important the Scottish Leaders Forum and the interaction between government and those sectors is.

Mr John Swinney: Very important on all aspects of government policy. I think if I – I’m now out of government, one of my big reflections is that one of the big problems of government is that government often operates within individual compartments and the necessary of cross-responsibility working to try to sort common problems – you know, the problem of child poverty or of climate change will not be solved in one neat little compartment in government, it will involve a whole range of different organisations, as will any issue in relation to resilience will invariably require a range of different organisations to be part of it.

So what the governments of which I was a part tried to foster was a climate of collaboration, co-operation across different public and private sector boundaries, third sector boundaries, so Scottish Leaders Forum would bring together basically the key public sector and third sector, private sector leaders around the country to try to formulate common purpose, and a common direction of travel in solving problems that we were all interested in solving but might have slightly different perspectives about who could do what in the process.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, in terms of emergency preparedness and pandemic planning, what level of engagement was there between the Scottish Government and the voluntary sector?

Mr John Swinney: There would be dialogue through, you know, the routine conversations we would have with the third sector about, you know, how they could perform a role within the delivery of policy. So if I think back to periods where, you know, I had responsibility for third sector relationships, 2007 to probably about 2012, you know, we’d be regularly involved in the third sector in the formulation of strategy, what role they could perform, how they could be involved. When it got to the stage of dealing with the pandemic, the third sector organisations would be operating very closely with local resilience partnerships, because, you know, we would encourage – we actually not just encouraged but we funded what were called third sector interfaces at local level in the 32 local authority areas in Scotland. So the third sector had an ability to influence the direction of policy and service delivery at local level.

Counsel Inquiry: The Inquiry has received a statement from Heather Fisken representing an organisation called Inclusion Scotland. It’s an independent non-party political representative organisation of disabled people across Scotland, with a network of over 50 DPO members and partner organisations as well as individual members. I want to give you the opportunity, Mr Swinney, to respond to what she tells us in her statement:

“Prior to January 2020 we were not invited to engage with government, UK, Scottish or local, regarding the extent to which inequalities and vulnerabilities should be factored into emergency preparedness and pandemic planning. We have routinely highlighted the obligation on the UK and Scottish Governments to involve disabled people in the development of law and policy. Failure to do this adequately means that inequalities faced by disabled people were not sufficiently factored in to emergency preparedness and pandemic planning.”

What does it say, Mr Swinney, about the partnership approach that such a significant organisation, representing such an important and vulnerable constituency in society, were not subject to engagement?

Mr John Swinney: I think I’m – I’ve read Heather Fisken’s witness statement and obviously I’m troubled by its contents, because that’s the last impression or feeling I would want a person like Heather Fisken and the organisation she represents to have.

I think the government, the Scottish Government, has gone to a lot of lengths, as I just have recounted, through the arrangements that we put in place to make sure the third sector have got a voice throughout the formulation of policy, whether that’s around the design of Scottish Government policy or legislation that’s brought forward and, you know, there’s extensive consultation with third sector organisations about the formulation of policy within the Scottish Government. So I’m very troubled that that is the impression that Heather Fisken has about the extent to which the organisation she represents has been involved.

I think –

Counsel Inquiry: It’s not just an impression, is it? She sets out quite clearly that, having offered the assistance of that organisation, and acknowledging the importance of an organisation like that being involved in pandemic planning, her pleas were ignored.

Mr John Swinney: Well, I regret the fact that that’s the case, and I think that, you know, that can and should be rectified by the Scottish Government.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to return now to, again, something that was covered in evidence this morning, and following on from your comments that certainly at some point during the Covid outbreak relations between the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government were not perhaps as cordial as they should have been.

It’s the UK Resilience Forum and the presence or absence of Scottish Government at these meetings, and given that there was a level of – or a lack of clarity following Ms Sturgeon’s evidence about whether or not the Scottish Government were present at some of the meetings, I think it’s important for us to look very briefly at the minutes.

So can we look at the minutes of the first meeting, please, which are at INQ000198919.

This is the meeting on 14 July 2021, chaired by Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt, and if we can scroll down, please –

Lady Hallett: I don’t think Ms Sturgeon was questioning that the minutes existed.

Ms Blackwell: No, no.

Lady Hallett: I think she was questioning the accuracy of the minutes.

Ms Blackwell: Or indeed whether or not the government were present.

Lady Hallett: Yes.

Ms Blackwell: So we can see representatives from the following organisations who were in attendance. Scottish Government are the first in the list. Thank you.

If we can now look to the second meeting, which is at INQ000198920.

This was a meeting that took place on 3 May 2022, chaired by Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Ellis, and if we can scroll down, please, to those present and absent, thank you. If we can scroll up the page, please, thank you.

We can see:

“Invited organisations unable to attend:

“Scottish Government …”

Then, finally, INQ000198921, which is the third meeting, taking place on 2 February 2023, chaired by Oliver Dowden.

If we can look at those in attendance and those absent, please.

“Invited organisations unable to attend”, at the bottom of the page, we can see, fourth bullet down, Scottish Government.

So it rather looks as if the minutes suggest that the Scottish Government were not present in meetings 2 and 3.

My question to you is this: do you think that their absence from these meetings was a reflection on the poor quality of relations between the nations?

Mr John Swinney: No. But I wonder if I might just see on that, the minute – that last minute, I wonder if I could just see slightly higher up –

Counsel Inquiry: The one that’s on the screen now?

Mr John Swinney: Yes, please. If I could just see – it’s – I just wanted to check, it says “Meeting held in” – sorry, it’s –

Counsel Inquiry: If we can go to the next page, please.

Mr John Swinney: Forgive me for –

Counsel Inquiry: Not at all.

Mr John Swinney: – the process here, because it’s material to the answer I’m going to give.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, of course.

Mr John Swinney: It says:

“Meeting held in person and by video conference.”

Okay. Thank you for. That.

So, no, I don’t think it’s about the nature of relations. In the short time I’ve had to explore this, and, as I say, I’m no longer a member of government so it takes me slightly longer to get answers to things, at least –

Counsel Inquiry: No, no need to apologise.

Mr John Swinney: On the first meeting, the Scottish Government was present. On the second meeting, the Scottish Government had planned to be present but, from what I have been advised, the videolink was not working and unfortunately there were people ready to be involved but could not participate because of technical issues.

On the third meeting, what I’ve been advised, and that’s why I wanted to see this wording, was that it was an in-person meeting in London, and that minute contradicts what I’ve been told, and this was at a period where we were wrestling with winter weather challenges and our staff numbers were under pressure.

I’m also not certain that these were invitations extended to ministers to participate. So I would need to check whether that was a ministerial …

But around this time, or certainly around about this period, I discussed collaboration on this question with Michael Ellis, who was I think, at the time, Minister for the Cabinet Office –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, he was.

Mr John Swinney: And basically we had an in principle conversation about the necessity for co-operation.

So to go back to the question you put to me, Ms Blackwell, did I think this was – the absence of the Scottish Government was in any way an indication of poor relations, on that point, no, unreservedly not. I think it was perhaps logistics and issues that got in the way, but I will make sure there is a definitive answer given to the Inquiry to explain that point.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you very much.

The final matter I want to ask you about is the National Performance Framework.

We can see this at INQ000102917.

This was established, I think, during your time in office, and it demonstrates that organisations in Scotland were working together, doesn’t it, to achieve collective aspirations for all members of society?

Mr John Swinney: Encouraging them to do so.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. It’s INQ000102917, please.

Right. Now, this is a pictorial representation of the framework, isn’t it? Can you explain to us how it works, please, Mr Swinney.

Mr John Swinney: Essentially what – at the core of it in the centre are an explanation of the purpose of Scottish public policy and the values that should underpin that, in the circular area in the centre. Then around about it are a series of national outcomes that we work with others in Scotland, whether they’re in the local authority partners, third sector organisations, the private sector, to agree, to try to achieve those outcomes. So they are aspirational about the type of country we’re trying to create.

Counsel Inquiry: The reason that I wanted to highlight it during the course of your evidence was that the Inquiry has heard from Sir Mark Walport, who spoke of the need, regardless of what approach government takes to future funding of national resilience, we perhaps should consider having a national resilience assessment across all areas of society in order to ensure that the best level of resilience is achieved.

Do you think that that principle could work together with the National Performance Framework that we see is currently in force in Scotland?

Mr John Swinney: I think that would be beneficial, and I think there is a constant challenge that we’ve got to be aware of on resilience issues about how the world is changing.

If I can perhaps give an illustration of that, we had a very severe and acute storm in the northeast of Scotland, Storm Arwen, and there was a very extensive amount of damage particularly to power cables, and what, of course, we discovered very, very quickly is that without power supplies, people’s dependence on mobile technology, broadband, for which vast amounts of life now hinge, stops. And it’s all very well saying, you know, “We’ll get the power back on tomorrow”, but if the power can’t go on for seven days, which in Storm Arwen was the case, that is an acute challenge to people.

So the resilience effort is – you know, the Inquiry will understand I’m not much of an electrical engineer, you need the proper people who know what they’re doing to do that. So the necessity for whole approaches to resilience threats, whatever they happen to be, which Sir Mark is suggesting, is a very welcome suggestion.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you very much.

My Lady, that concludes my questions for Mr Swinney. You have provisionally granted permission for Scottish Covid Bereaved to ask two discrete questions. May they do that now, please.

Lady Hallett: Ms Mitchell.

Questions From Ms Mitchell KC

Ms Mitchell: I am obliged, and in fact one of the questions has already been dealt with in full before with Ms Sturgeon, so I only need to take you to one question now.

I would like, Mr Swinney, for your comment on evidence given to this Inquiry by Dr Jim McMenamin. He was a consultant epidemiologist in Health Protection Scotland and, as you will know, that’s the lead body protecting the Scottish public from infectious diseases at the time that pandemic planning was taking place, and also at the time just before the pandemic.

I’m not going to ask the Inquiry to physically go to the statement, but just for the record it’s his statement, the Inquiry number INQ000183410.

In that statement to the Inquiry, at paragraph 146, he explains that staffing numbers reduced at Health Protection Scotland between 2005 and 2020.

Now, he indicated that this was due to a number of factors, but he specifically highlighted that one of the factors was the requirement placed on all NHS boards by the Scottish Government to make what he describes as cash releasing efficiency savings, and as a result of that, of course, clearly, staffing numbers were affected.

Further, he explains at paragraph 145 that the newly formed Public Health Scotland, so the body that was taking over from the other one, the opening budget for that and staffing levels were not sufficient for Public Health Scotland to deliver the health protection and response required by the pandemic.

From your position, having, in your own words this morning, the responsibility to make Scotland in as strong a position as it could be for any eventuality we had to face, do you accept the evidence of Dr Jim McMenamin that, amongst other factors, the Scottish Government requirement to make cash savings in the previous body, the newly formed Public Health Scotland didn’t have the budget or staffing levels to provide health protection for Scotland pre-pandemic?

Mr John Swinney: My view is that Public Health Scotland provided the Scottish Government, our local authority partners – and I make reference to this in my own witness statement – with a huge amount of immensely reliable information and trusted information to enable us to form our decisions. So part of the benefit of the reform which was undertaken to establish Public Health Scotland was it was a body jointly owned, if I could use that terminology, between the government and local authorities. So there was – often local authorities might dispute the evidence base that government has taken its decisions based on. On this example there was none of that because we jointly owned the body of Public Health Scotland and there was wide confidence in the quality of the material and the information that came from Public Health Scotland.

So, in that respect, I want to put that on the record, about the strength of that information that was available from which decision-making then came.

Where I would accept is that there were financial pressures – there were financial pressures throughout every aspect of the public sector in Scotland and we’ve had a prolonged period of austerity which has required us to make – to live within very challenging fiscal – a very challenging fiscal environment in the Scottish Government. Having said that, the health budget, which would have funded Public Health Scotland, would have been the budget that grew the most compared to any other aspect of the public – of public budgets.

So yes, there would be efficiency savings required, they were required of everybody, but in that context the health budget was growing to a greater extent than any other part of the public budgets for which the Scottish Government has responsibility.

So what that answer is designed to do is to acknowledge the strength of Public Health Scotland but also to accept that, in a challenging fiscal environment, we have to ask organisations to perform strongly to live within the financial resources we have available to us.

Ms Mitchell KC: So despite the fact that Public Health Scotland would have had the budget that grew most compared to other aspects of public life, it still wasn’t, in terms of budget or in terms of staffing, prepared for the pandemic?

Mr John Swinney: Well, I – certainly from my experience of Public Health Scotland I thought Public Health Scotland contributed formidably to the handling of the pandemic and at no stage did I feel that we did not have the necessary information or interventions available to us, from – well, particularly Dr McMenamin and his colleagues at that time. So from my perspective I felt they were able to make that contribution, but I do acknowledge that the burden of austerity and the requirement for efficiency savings has been acute for many organisations.

Ms Mitchell: Thank you, my Lady, that concludes my questions.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Ms Mitchell.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Swinney, thank you for your help.

The Witness: Thank you, my Lady.

(The witness withdrew)

Ms Blackwell: My Lady, the final witness of the day and indeed of this week is Catherine Frances.

Ms Catherine Frances


Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Ms Blackwell: Please sit down.

Ms Catherine Frances: Thank you.

Counsel Inquiry: Is your name Catherine Frances?

Ms Catherine Frances: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: Ms Frances, thank you for coming to give evidence today and thank you for the assistance that you’ve given so far. You’ve provided a witness statement which we’ll look at on the screen in a moment. Before we confirm that this is your witness statement, I notice that you’re quite softly spoken. That’s not a criticism, but please keep your voice up and speak into the microphone so that the stenographer can hear you for the transcript. If you need a break during the course of your evidence, just ask and we will do that.

So can you confirm, please, Ms Frances, that this is your witness statement?

Ms Catherine Frances: I can.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. We don’t need to go there, but can you also confirm that at the end you have signed it as being true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Ms Catherine Frances: I have.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, we can take that down, please.

You are the Director General for Local Government Resilience and Communities, a post which you have held since April of 2019?

Ms Catherine Frances: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: I think that you joined the civil service in 2001, and prior to joining this department you were director of public services in Her Majesty’s Treasury?

Ms Catherine Frances: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Now, a warning, my Lady, we are about to enter a realm of shifting acronyms and names, so I’m going to try and deal with it all at once so that we can then move on.

Ms Frances, I need your assistance in relation to how the government is formed and its previous iterations, please.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, referred to as DLUHC, which I’m going to use during the course of your evidence, has operated in various forms and under various names over its lifetime, hasn’t it? It was created in 2006 to replace the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which had taken on the Local Government and Regions portfolio from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in 2002.

When it was first formed, the department was called the Department for Communities and Local Government, DCLG, but then in January of 2018 it became the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, MHCLG, and then in September of 2021 it became DLUHC.

Have I got that right?

Ms Catherine Frances: You have got that right.

Counsel Inquiry: Good, right.

You are responsible in your role for what we know as RED, which is the Resilience and Emergencies Division, although it is now known as the Resilience and Recovery Directorate; is that right?

Ms Catherine Frances: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to refer to it as “RED” during the course of your evidence. Just pausing there, why has that particular name changed?

Ms Catherine Frances: It’s changed for two reasons. Firstly, because this is part of our organisation which works on resilience planning and response, and we wanted to recognise that we were thinking in a holistic way about how you recover from emergencies as well as how you just immediately respond. So the name has been changed for that purpose.

It’s also been changed to reflect, I think over time, changes in the resourcing of that team and set of teams. It is now run by a director who has responsibility solely for that function, and previously it’s been in slightly different arrangements over the years.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, thank you.

The department is a ministerial department with oversight for local government and elections, homelessness, housing and home ownership, planning, building safety and levelling up and the unions since 2021, but the Inquiry is interested in its oversight in terms of local government, because it oversees the local government sector and is responsible for the stewardship and oversight of local authorities in England, which includes ensuring that the frameworks for accountability and finance of local government are robust, and that local authorities operate in accordance with what’s described as a “best value” regime.

Ms Catherine Frances: That is a correct description of our role nationally in relation to local government. I think it’s important for the Inquiry to understand, and that because local government does so many different things, in England the way that this is organised is that the lead government department for a particular service area would take national oversight and accountability for that.

So to give you an example, the Department for Health and Social Care would be responsible at national level for social care, even though local authorities are a major player in social care.

Similarly the Department for Education would be responsible for children’s services, and we as a department would be responsible for homelessness at a national policy level.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Ms Catherine Frances: But you’re correct in your description that we did the overarching framework.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of resilience, which is of particular interest to this Inquiry, your department shares joint competency for local resilience with the Cabinet Office, I think; is that right?

Ms Catherine Frances: Yes. May I set this out very clearly for you?

Counsel Inquiry: Please do.

Ms Catherine Frances: So the way to think about our department’s role is in two different chunks, if you like. The first is, as any other government department, we have lead areas of responsibility, and they are exactly as you have set out: housing, homelessness, building safety and local government overarching accountancy in stewardship form.

There is then a separate function that sits within our department which is the Resilience and Emergencies Division, now renamed RED.

Counsel Inquiry: RED?

Ms Catherine Frances: RED. Now, RED performs a function which is not just for our own department, RED performs a function on behalf of all of government, central and local. I can set that out role for you now if it’s helpful.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, please.

Ms Catherine Frances: So this is all based in legislation and in the civil contingencies framework and then the supporting guidance that goes with this.

So at national level civil contingencies are arranged in such a way as you have the Cabinet Office with overarching responsibility, and they have responsibility in terms of policy, known as doctrine, for local emergencies planning too.

As you have probably heard from other people there’s often a lead government department which takes forward a particular risk and plans for that.

Locally speaking, we have a situation defined in legislation where Category 1 responders, hospitals, local authorities, blue lights, have a responsibility for planning for emergencies and then responding in emergencies. They also have a responsibility to come together in local resilience forums, and those forums are in place to enable planning and response when it needs a cross-agency response locally.

The role of RED in that wider system is, in a sense, relatively simple: it is the connecting team between the national level civil contingencies arrangements and the local LRFs.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Ms Catherine Frances: So those 38 LRFs in England will have RED connecting officers working with them, and they will work with them on planning and also in response. I hope that’s clear.

Counsel Inquiry: It is, thank you very much.

Local government is responsible for a range of services for people and businesses in defined areas, and I’d like your assistance, please, now, on how the local government levels work.

So there are different times of local authorities, aren’t there?

Ms Catherine Frances: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Can you tell us what they are, please.

Ms Catherine Frances: Yes. So there are a range of different types. There are some authorities, metropolitan authorities and integrated authorities that have responsibility for a full range of services. To give you an example, that would include social care, children’s services, those sorts of services, it would include libraries, it would also include responsibilities for refuse collection and things like that, and planning.

In other parts of the country where we don’t have that unitary authority that integrates both tiers, that can be split between a county, which holds some responsibilities, and, underneath it, some district councils.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Ms Catherine Frances: They have separated lines of responsibilities that are set out very clearly in all legislation. For example, districts would do refuse and that sort of service and at the county level you might find adult social care and children’s services.

Counsel Inquiry: So differing types of local authorities –

Ms Catherine Frances: It is a patchwork across the country, well understood by practitioners, but it is not regular. Then, in addition to that, in some parts of the country there are combined authorities or mayoral combined authorities, they bring together the authorities in the area and have certain accountabilities that are set out in a series largely of devolution deals and then legislation that follows those.

If it would help the Inquiry, they tend to be less directly responsible for the public services that are affected immediately in a pandemic-type response.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, but what’s the interrelation between the local resilience forums and local authorities? Is there a direct correlation between the area that a local resilience forum covers and a local authority, or do some local resilience forums cross boundaries?

Ms Catherine Frances: Thank you for asking that question.

So in the legislation the 38 local resilience forums are set out as being along the same footprint as police authorities.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Ms Catherine Frances: So that is what defines them.

You can imagine that a local resilience forum will sometimes be responding to a situation where the police may be other lead agency, so one can see why it’s set out like that –

Lady Hallett: I thought there were 42 authorities? Sorry to interrupt.

Ms Catherine Frances: 38.

Lady Hallett: I thought there were 40 …

Ms Catherine Frances: I would bow to your greater knowledge on the police.

Lady Hallett: I thought it was over 40 police forces. Forgive me for interrupting.

Ms Catherine Frances: It may have changed, I don’t know. I’m afraid I can’t help you on that one.

You asked about the connection with local authorities?

Ms Blackwell: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: Because they are Category 1 responders, they are required to engage with the local resilience forum of which they are a part.

Counsel Inquiry: Under the Civil Contingencies Act?

Ms Catherine Frances: Exactly.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: In practice, what that can mean is that you’ll have a local resilience forum that has several councils in it, that is perfectly standardised, and you may find that councils don’t all individually attend, they can nominate each other to attend on each other’s behalf.

Counsel Inquiry: So the department’s role in preparedness and risk management for civil emergencies, as we’ve established, sits within RED, and you’ve explained how RED really sits between central government and local government, and provides a conduit for advice.

Does that extend to assurance? So what level of assurance does RED have over plans and arrangements that a local – that might be held at a local level?

Ms Catherine Frances: Okay, just to break this down, so firstly I think we do have civil contingencies responsibilities as a department outside RED as any other department would.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: But just looking at RED, its role is to act as the connecting point between central government and LRFs. So in the preparedness phase, RED’s role is to act as a critical friend of local planners, to check that they are asking themselves the right question, because the accountability for planning lies with them, to share with them and point them in the direction of guidance that’s been issued, so that they can understand that, to ensure that they understand the national risk registers that are issued, and then of course local planners then have to make their own community risk registers, and to help local partners identify risks.

In a response phase, RED’s interaction would build on that sort of relationship, and effectively they would act as a communicator between the local LRF and the centre, highlighting where there are issues that need to be resolved and facilitating the transfer of information between central and local.

For the avoidance of doubt, RED has no role in assuring the local plan, because the local plan is the responsibility of the local responders, and legislation and accountability very clearly sits there.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

The identity of the person that sits in RED who communicates at a local level, is that person called a resilience adviser?

Ms Catherine Frances: They are called a resilience adviser when they’re planning and advising, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: In the event of a response period, if you like, does the name of that person change to become a government liaison officer?

Ms Catherine Frances: They do, and the reason for the change of name is literally that they turn into a function where they are liaising very proactively between the local and the national to make sure messages get through and to make sure they’re helping to solve problems and handing things to lead departments and things where it’s needed.

Counsel Inquiry: Is it more often than not the case that that person is the same person, the resilience adviser is the same person as the government liaise officer?

Ms Catherine Frances: Often and usually – we may come on to this later – at points where the whole country’s systems are activated, as in a pandemic response, we had to work on shift bases and with a bit more variety, but normally we would try for as much continuity as is possible.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Do you think it’s perhaps unnecessary and a little confusing that the name of that person changes or the title of that person changes, or do you think it’s helpful?

Ms Catherine Frances: I think for people who work in the system, they understand absolutely exactly how the systems work.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of oversight and assurance, you’ve explained why RED does not hold a responsibility of assuring that the local plans are in place, et cetera. Do you think it would help if RED did have that level of assurance and accountability to provide at that level comfort that the local plans are dealing with the national risks appropriately?

Ms Catherine Frances: I think it potentially could be quite confusing done in that way, because what we are trying to achieve in RED is a situation where RED supports the local people who are accountable for planning and helps them in a supportive, collegiate way to assure themselves that they are at an appropriate level of preparedness, and that accountability and the clarity of that accountability is relatively important, I think.

I would say two additional things, if you would let me. The first I think is that that’s not the same as saying that RED disengages from the process of local plans and local risk assessments. If I can take an example in pandemic preparedness, we may come on to it later, I mean, RED has participated in a lot of the exercises over the years that have been important in pandemic preparedness, but we have also taken steps over the years – I mean, in December 2017 we interviewed all LRFs and said – I think 35 or 38, and asked them about levels of preparedness, fed back what they said to central government departments to aid that communication. RED has additionally run workshops for LRFs to attend and had central government partners there as well, so that they could work together on the issues that needed to be grappled with in terms of planning for a pandemic. RED have also facilitated a sort of local resilience forum engagement group to work through particular issues with central government partners.

So although they’re not assuring local plans whatsoever, RED’s interlocutor role when it’s a major risk, such as pandemic planning, extended as far as facilitating the communication in those sort of joined-up ways between local and national.

The second thing to say, I think, is just that we do recognise that LRFs need to be able to assure themselves and have good accountability locally for their own plans, and although I believe it wasn’t set out in my witness statement, because it postdates it, we have made some further announcements about further work on that.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, thank you.

At the heart of the system is the principle of subsidiarity; is that right?

Ms Catherine Frances: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Can you explain to us what RED’s approach is to that and how it ensures that matters cascade down in the way that that principle expects.

Ms Catherine Frances: Well, the principle of subsidiarity is that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, and co-ordination should happen at the lowest necessary level. In general, RED’s approach is therefore to make sure that information is cascaded down, if I can use that terminology, to local resilience fora. So, to give you an example, RED will have facilitated events following – workshops and things, following the issue of the National Security Risk Assessment to make sure that every LRF in the country understood that and could dock that into their plans.

RED’s general approach is to share as much information as is possible with local resilience fora. We do that depending on the security of the information and also the sign-off of the lead government department, but we have a very strong culture of sharing with local colleagues. And in relation to a pandemic, the preparedness here really was whole-system, so RED’s approach to subsidiarity there was to dock into the central structures, which you’ll have heard a lot about, the Pandemic Flu Readiness Boards and structures like that, and to convey there what local resilience forum were saying and then to facilitate the flow of information into local resilience forums, to be part of joint exercising, locally and nationally, and to facilitate the flow of messages back up and down through the system.

So I think in summary, it is an approach based on subsidiarity.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: It is just a whole-system approach when planning for a pandemic, because some elements of it involve national decision-making and some, quite rightly, either LRF level or more local decision-making because –

Counsel Inquiry: Even more local than that.

Ms Catherine Frances: It is local partners who know their communities –

Counsel Inquiry: The best, yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: – and we know that local planners are very good at dealing with their communities.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, let’s have a look at a couple of documents, please. The first is a report from the C-19 National Foresight Group, entitled “Covid-19 Pandemic Third Interim Operational Review”.

Thank you.

Now, this is dated October of 2020 so it’s outside of our Module 1 time period but I want to look at page 22, please, because it sets out some concerns that were felt by – from delegates.

If which can highlight the second paragraph there, please, this was a group that had gathered evidence from all but one local resilience forum and it said:

“Delegates report that they did not feel understood or trusted by Central Government and Ministers. Delegates have reported that Ministers and some government departments still do not understand what LRFs and SCGs are, what these structures can and cannot do, and what the difference is between an LRF and an SCG.”

Is that a strategic commissioning group, an SCG?

Ms Catherine Frances: Co-ordination group.

Counsel Inquiry: “This hampers the ability to integrate the national and local approach, as the expectations from the national decision-makers are misplaced and misaligned with the civil contingencies’ frameworks, or guidance materials are incorrectly framed, or include incorrect details.”

Is that something that you recognise, Ms Frances?

Ms Catherine Frances: So I was aware of this work being done at the time, and indeed RED attended some of the sessions to hear first-hand, because it was important to learn from practitioners and what they were feeling at the time.

I think, not to deflect the query you’re making, but this is October 2020 –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: – and I think quite a lot of what we’re hearing from delegates here is their reflection on evolution during the pandemic and how they felt certain things were going. The distinction between an LRF and an SCG is, of course, important in operational work –

Counsel Inquiry: What is the difference?

Ms Catherine Frances: The distinction is literally that an LRF is the group that brings together all of the Category 1 responders.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: But when you go into response you need a strategic group that is just running the response and that is designated by the LRF, that is the SCG.

To avoid a huge number of letters creeping in, in central government I think possibly sometimes people referred to LRFs when they meant SCGs, but I don’t think that would have meant that central government departments didn’t understand what an LRF was, or indeed an SCG.

I think this question about feelings of trust between central government and ministers is one that one really has to ask local partners about. We often heard from local partners that they wanted to have advanced notice of decisions that were being taken, and sometimes they asked about the sharing of information in a timely way. I think some of that is coming out here.

From a RED perspective, and indeed a wider departmental perspective, we shared material when it was authorised to be shared, when decisions had been taken and so on and so forth.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

We can take that down, please, and let’s replace it with INQ000177803, which is the witness statement of Mark Lloyd from the Local Government Association. He is going to be coming to give evidence to the Inquiry at a later date.

Could we go to page 51 and have a look at paragraph 199, please. Thank you.

“The LGA’s view is that in a number of [cases], the principle [this is of subsidiarity] is not currently being applied effectively” –

Lady Hallett: Areas.

Ms Blackwell: “Areas”, I’m so sorry.

“… in a number of areas, the principle is not currently being applied effectively. Subsidiarity implies that local agencies are trusted, equal partners in emergency preparedness and response which, in appropriate circumstances, are empowered to lead local resilience work. However, there are a number of examples of practice suggesting otherwise.”

If we could read on to the next paragraph, please:

“As noted, a persistent issue, which has undermined trust and therefore the principle of subsidiarity, has been the extent of central Government’s willingness to share information with local partners. There have been repeated challenges with central Government sharing intelligence and information about national risks (for examples, planning assumptions reasonable worst-case scenarios) on a limited basis or not at all, thereby undermining the ability of local areas to undertake timely and informed local planning.”

Thank you.

It appears from what Mark Lloyd has to say, certainly in those two paragraphs, is that there was a lack of sharing of information or certainly a perception at the local level of not being fully informed about the National Risk Assessment and what lay behind it.

Do you agree, Ms Frances, that if the risk assessments at a local level are going to be meaningful and adequate, there needs to be an understanding of the assumptions that are being used at a national level to perform the National Risk Assessment?

Ms Catherine Frances: So the national risk security assessment is shared with every LRF in England. There are elements of it that can be secure and they can be accessed through secure routes. LRFs themselves nominate who has access to that information. So – and we use the LRF to cascade that information because it is the named ways for doing so in civil contingencies approaches in legislation.

Counsel Inquiry: Just so that I understand it correctly, there is a confidential – there is a secret part of the National Security Risk Assessment, isn’t there? There is an element of it which is not public facing? Are you suggesting that, in relation to that part of the assessment process, there is a facility whereby the local resilience forum can have access to that, but it requires the nomination of a person, presumably who has security clearance to do that?

Ms Catherine Frances: So my understanding is that the NSRA is shared with every LRF in the country, and certainly in 2019, when it was updated, RED and the CCS ran a series of events with local resilience fora, so that they understood changes to the NSRA and appreciated how that could affect them.

That is not the same as saying that every local partner saw the NSRA or the associated documents. An LRF would each have had to decide who had access to that material, and my understanding is that the areas that are more secure are treated in a more secure way.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Ms Catherine Frances: But it would have been for the LRF to determine who saw that, and I would certainly expect key people to have seen the key documentation.

Counsel Inquiry: So does it surprise you that Mr Lloyd’s opinion appears to be that there have been repeated challenges about the sharing of information?

Ms Catherine Frances: I think that he’s making two points, if I read this right. So the first is around the national risk assessments where, as I’ve said, it was shared in the appropriate way down the appropriate routes.

The second point I think he’s making is a general question about whether information more widely was shared.

I think I’d say two things here.

I mean, the first is that before the pandemic local planners had the same epidemiological sort of assumptions that were there in all of the documentation as national planners were using from the 2011 and 2013 documentation, and were working using the same planning frameworks as central government planners, and I think we also shared with them updated Covid material when it was available.

So I understand that local partners – and we did hear local partners saying, “Are you sharing as much as you can?” But I think in terms of pandemic preparation the basic building blocks were all common across central and national government. The exercises that we were doing were on common bases, and the same for planners.

I would say that in the pandemic things moved at pace, and sometimes that may have led local planners to say, “Could you not have told us this earlier?”

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: Totally accept that. That’s absolutely something we heard.

Counsel Inquiry: But in terms of preparedness and the National Risk Assessment and the ability of that to be carried forwards and cascading down to a local level, do you think there is a disconnect between what happens at a national and a local level or are you confident that there is sufficient quality of information flowing from the top to the bottom?

Ms Catherine Frances: Well, I think if we set out the National Risk Assessments we hold a series of events to explain the changes and then LRFs are required, and I think do, understand what’s in the national risk assessments, that that’s acceptable. I think they then need to work out at a local level, and this can be challenging actually, how the local community risk assessment works, because you may have a part of the country which has a different balance of risk assessment to another, for entirely legitimate reasons. Maybe it’s subject to more flooding than another part of the country or something. We see those sorts of variations. But, yes, I think local planners had those framework pieces.

Counsel Inquiry: What are regional resilience teams?

Ms Catherine Frances: So are you referring to the arrangements which were in place before RED started in our department?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: Yes. So before 2011 –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: – government was structured in a different way and there were a series of government offices across England. In that context, there were a series of regional resilience teams and they were Cabinet Office teams who reported directly in to the Cabinet Office, and they did – what the name suggests, actually – a very similar function to that which RED performs and has performed since 2011.

Counsel Inquiry: But spread out across the country?

Ms Catherine Frances: Yes, exactly. Located in those government offices which no longer exist and didn’t after 2011.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. If it were to be suggested that consideration perhaps should be given to the reinstatement of regional resilience teams to add an additional level of assistance, and perhaps combined with a level of assurance between central and local government, do you think that that’s an idea that’s worth considering?

Ms Catherine Frances: There are very different views around the country on the regional situation, and I think that we think that the regional position is more complex than – in resilience terms, than existed prior to 2011.

To explain that a little bit more, there are some parts of the country where the collaboration jointly between resilience planners on the old regional footprint still continues to feel relatively natural, if I can put it that way.

So to draw an example, the northeast or the southwest, the LRFs in those areas tend to work jointly in a way that is very close to the original regional footprint, and RED works with them on that basis as well. If they want to work like that, we support them on that basis. But there are other parts of the country where that geography doesn’t feel so natural, maybe because there’s a very rural area next to a very urban area, and the connection there just feels less significant than maybe other structural connections.

So RED works in a way that we support collaboration across different LRFs in the way that works for whatever the task that needs to be done. So if I can give you an example, in preparations for the possibility of leaving the EU with no deal, we worked with different LRFs across the country who had ports and airports, and clearly they weren’t all in one region but they shared a common set of issues that they needed to deal with, and so we would flex our approach that way.

I should just add one more point, which is that RED does work on a regional basis, we have four regional offices.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Ms Catherine Frances: At various times it’s been four or five. But all of the workshops that we’ve run in pandemic planning, for example our workshops in, I think it was, early 2018, were run in four locations so that if connections needed to be made on the regional basis we were facilitating that.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, so from what you have said, RED takes the issue that’s been raised, considers the area in which it’s being raised, and prepares and presents a suitable solution, and it’s got flexibility within the organisation in order to be able to do that?

Ms Catherine Frances: That is a very good way of putting it, thank you.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you very much.

I want to move on to resources now, please. The Inquiry will hear that, in terms of local government funding, there were real terms reductions over the period of time that this Inquiry is involved in, up to, in some cases, 57%. That evidence is going to be coming from Mr Lloyd. And that however large the reduction was, there was a significant amount of concern at a local government level as to whether or not there was sufficient resource in order to be able to carry out proper preparation for any civil emergency happening.

Did you witness the impact of reduction in funding or changes in funding in your day-to-day relationship with local government?

Ms Catherine Frances: Can I correct one thing for the record, first?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, please.

Ms Catherine Frances: I think you said that there was a 57% reduction in local government budgets.

Counsel Inquiry: What I intended to say was that the councils had their core funding from central government reduced and in some areas that amounted to a real terms reduction of 57%.

Ms Catherine Frances: So I think that’s a quote from Mark Lloyd’s witness statement.

Counsel Inquiry: That’s exactly where it’s come from.

Ms Catherine Frances: I just think it’s important for the Inquiry to understand that that is not a measure of the resources available to local government, particularly because it doesn’t include resources from council tax.

Mark Lloyd in his witness statement does make reference to another figure which is drawn from the National Audit Office –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: – and I would strongly recommend that we use that one, because it represents a holistic view of resources for councils, it’s at paragraph 287 in Mark Lloyd’s witness statement.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you agree that there was a reduction?

Ms Catherine Frances: Absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: Right. And my question was: did you witness any impact of that reduction in your day-to-day work with local government?

Ms Catherine Frances: So there was definitely a really significant reduction in local government resources in the 2010s, as part of the wider government approach to fiscal policy. What I’ve witnessed varies a lot between different councils, and it’s hard to draw simple conclusions about the budget reductions and preparedness for a pandemic, actually. Firstly, I think, because councils make their own decisions about what they’re going to prioritise within the statutory framework, and so they will naturally have looked at where they had statutory responsibilities, like to plan for emergencies –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes?

Ms Catherine Frances: – and for big public services, which were critical, and will have formed a view about what was necessary. Because they take different locally-based decisions as well, they also take quite different strategies, and it’s hard to generalise. And they’re quite good and have been very effective organisations at working in a creative way to get out efficiencies over this era.

So I would say I’ve seen councils’ capacity being affected, that is the case. I’ve also seen them working in a very efficient way through different reductions.

At an overall level, when you look at the choices they’ve made on services like adult social care and children’s services, they’ve tended to try to uphold the expenditure in those areas and make reductions elsewhere.

And, yes, I don’t think you can draw quite a straight line from the resourcing question to their capability and their planning, because they’ve seemed quite resilient organisations to me and quite adaptable, and they were in the pandemic.

Counsel Inquiry: In your witness statement you make reference to “best value duty”. What does that mean?

Ms Catherine Frances: There’s a duty in legislation that councils have regard to efficiency and economy and improvement, which is a requirement on all councils essentially to govern themselves well and to continue with due regard to those principles. They – the best value principle has been used when councils are in severe difficulty, but it’s a relatively unusual context, a relatively unusual intervention to make, on best value grounds. Most councils govern themselves exceptionally well and are very effective at managing this sort of resource pressure.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that at the present time the subsidiarity model is still capable of working effectively, given the level of funding that local government has?

Ms Catherine Frances: Absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Other issues relating to the relationship between RED and the local government, both local authorities and local resilience forums.

Would it assist in the planning that they have to do for civil emergencies for there to be one single repository of material that they need to consider? The Inquiry has received information that there isn’t at present a single repository for relevant guidance and information on emergency preparedness, and that that – consideration of creating that is something that should happen.

Ms Catherine Frances: So the Cabinet Office hold a system called ResilienceDirect which can be accessed by LRFs, and some of the guidance is also available on public websites. We have heard exactly the same feedback from local planners, and you will have seen in some of our documentation attached to my witness statement that that’s reflected in some of their feedback.

Counsel Inquiry: The Inquiry has also heard that, in the main part, guidance that reflects upon all civil emergencies, but in particular pandemic planning, did not cover the issue of non-pharmaceutical interventions. Do you think that, going forwards, that is something, the involvement of that in planning documents and guidance given to those in charge of local government about non-pharmaceutical interventions, would be a welcome addition?

Ms Catherine Frances: So local planners for the pandemic were using the same planning guidance documents and the same assumptions as national, and thus – as you will have heard from other witnesses and you will have seen from the published material – there were elements in there, and what happened in the pandemic, that weren’t included in there.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: In terms of what should be in a planning document for pandemic, whether flu or otherwise, I would absolutely defer to the Department of Health and Social Care, because they are the lead government department in defining what should be included in that. So I hope that answers your question.

There were gaps in terms of the comparability of what we were planning for and what ultimately happened. They had the same information as central government departments, and I would absolutely defer to DH.

Counsel Inquiry: When one considers that particularly taking into account the model or the principle of subsidiarity, that it is those people on the ground acting locally, following plans and guidance locally, that are in the greatest need of practical guidance, then it is imperative, is it not, that the guidance that they follow includes the practical application of things like non-pharmaceutical interventions?

Ms Catherine Frances: It’s absolutely necessary that the plans that everyone is following are as close as can be reasonably expected to be what is likely to happen, and that everybody has a shared understanding of that, and that in exercising and in reflecting on exercises and in workshopping things we are talking about the same thing, whether at a national or a local level.

Counsel Inquiry: I’d finally like to ask you about the vulnerable and what level of involvement planning and guidance has had in terms of identifying those who are the most vulnerable in society and how they need to be accounted for in terms of planning and also in terms of any response to a civil emergency.

You say in your witness statement that:

“RED engages with voluntary, community and social enterprise (‘VCSE’) partners in preparedness, response and recovery planning. This is primarily through LRF engagement where VCSE partners are core partners within individual LRFs.”

Can you explain to us, please, how that works?

Ms Catherine Frances: Yes, certainly. So the department is not the lead department in national government in terms of overall relationship with the voluntary and community sector.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: But it is absolutely critical to emergency preparedness and response that the voluntary and community sector are part of that. The guidance that sets out how LRFs should work stipulates that LRFs should be expected to work with volunteering organisations at the right footprint, and so the way that we support LRFs on that is simply to make sure that they are aware of that guidance and to make sure they factor it in.

I think more precisely, in terms of preparing from RED, if I can give you an example, at the national level, we try and make sure we have some connections with lead VCS organisations. So, for example, the British Red Cross has attended our twice-yearly LRFs, chairs a conference on very regular occasions, and is a regular attendee and invitee, but then we channel most of our work with the VCS simply by looking at the LRF and what the LRF is doing.

To elaborate yet further, when we’re in response, and indeed in planning, we often find that the LRF area itself is quite a large footprint for engaging with charities, so in the pandemic a lot of very kind people gave of their time and effort, and they did so at what I would describe as a hyper-local level, so often that was corralled and organised by local authorities who themselves would then be part of the LRF structure. So there’s some engagement by us at the national level, but our primary engagement with the VCS is to ask LRFs to do that, and then we absolutely acknowledge that local authorities and even smaller partners are working collaboratively with the VCS.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

You mention the British Red Cross, so I would like to display part of the witness statement that we have from Mr Adamson, who is the chief executive there.

It’s at INQ000182613, and if we can go to page 10, please, and look at paragraph 43. Thank you.

“The [British Red Cross] has long believed that increased engagement between the CCS and the voluntary sector would be beneficial for the UK’s emergency preparedness. It is in that context that, in 2019, the [British Red Cross] and other voluntary organisations sought to engage with the CCS. Our focus was on seeking to develop a strategy with the government for the voluntary sector to react to a range of emergencies based on the lessons learned from responding to the multiple emergency events of 2017. The intention was for the voluntary sector to offer something more than the gold, silver and bronze model which usually dominates emergency responses, in particular to focus on the human aspects of recovery that are sometimes forgotten. The experience was somewhat dispiriting and there appeared to be a lack of curiosity on the part of the CCS regarding what the voluntary sector could provide.”

Further down, please:

“44. I had also previously approached the RED in 2018 and received a more positive response, including a proposed approach to the CCS for a three-way meeting. However, this meeting did not materialise.”

Could more be done, Ms Frances, to engage with the voluntary sector and to ensure that, so far as both planning and response is concerned, those most vulnerable in society, and who require the services and assistance from the voluntary sector, are engaged with, both at a national and also at a level at which RED was, and is, existing?

Ms Catherine Frances: So a lot of what you’ve just read out is in relation to CCS, not RED. I don’t know about the particular meeting that Michael Adamson is alluding to in paragraph 44.

Counsel Inquiry: But forgive me, you were talking, in your previous answer, about engagement at a national level with CCS, between CCS and the –

Ms Catherine Frances: No, I was talking about engagement at national level primarily between RED and the British Red Cross, but I also noted that the British Red Cross often attended at –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Catherine Frances: – are joint LRF chairs, joint with CCS there.

I mean, I think that there is always more to be done working with the voluntary and community sector. It has an incredibly distinct and important role. It is exactly, as Michael Adamson notes, not the same as the role that is provided through gold, silver, bronze structures, so I accept his feedback that local resilience partners, whether that be in LRFs or other fora, can continue to build their connections with the VCS.

I also noted in his witness statement that he talked about progress that had been made about interrelations with the VCS over the course of the pandemic, which seemed to me to be positive and were led by the lead government department for the VCS.

In terms of RED’s engagement with the VCS, as I’ve said the national engagement in the LRFs chairs forum has been the principal one, and we have looked across the sector at how people are engaging with the VCS to see if we can learn any lessons or take any cues from that. We haven’t yet moved forward with the work.

Counsel Inquiry: Because if RED is expecting to be able to rely upon the British Red Cross and other organisations within the VCS, in the event of a response to a civil emergency, that is likely to make more of an impact if the VCS has also been engaged in the preparation, isn’t it?

Ms Catherine Frances: RED is asking local responders but RED is acting as a communicator between central and local government and structures. RED is asking that local responders who are responsible in legislation are content that they have plans, and the Cabinet Office guidance, which is very sensible, expects LRFs to have good connections with the VCS. I completely agree that good connections with the VCS is a vital part of the mixture, part of the recipe of good response and good planning. I’m not sure I can go very much beyond that.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Ms Catherine Frances: Our recent publications on this express a desire to integrate preparedness and response more closely with communities, which of course is in part about the VCS, though not entirely.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you very much.

Would you excuse my back, please?


Ms Blackwell: My Lady, there are no questions for which permission has been granted, and so that concludes Ms Frances’s evidence.

Lady Hallett: I think we have all had enough acronyms for one day.

The Witness: I’m sorry about that.

Lady Hallett: It’s not your fault, I’m afraid it’s systemic.

The Witness: Yes.

Lady Hallett: If only it was enough acronyms for a lifetime, but I fear it’s not.

Thank you very much indeed for your help, Ms Frances.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Right, as far as next week is concerned, obviously we’re not sitting tomorrow, it’s a Friday, we don’t normally sit on a Friday. We had hoped to sit Monday morning but for various reasons it hasn’t proved possible, so I will next sit again at 2 o’clock, Monday afternoon.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

(3.07 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 2 pm on Monday, 3 July 2023)