A FORMER Scottish Government adviser has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that science body Sage was “incredibly secretive” in the initial stages of the pandemic.

Professor Devi Sridhar, who is the chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said there was a level of “frustration” for Scotland around science being reserved and the lack of transparency being adopted by Sage.

Sage – the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – provides scientific and technical advice to support government decisions during emergencies and was criticised in April 2020 for not disclosing a list of members, although they could reveal their own membership.

Sridhar was questioned by Jamie Dawson KC about areas she felt the Scottish Government did not have control over during the pandemic.

Asked what aspects of science she felt the Scottish Government had no power over, she said: “Sage is the obvious one.

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“When the UK Government came out and said we’re following the science, we’re following Sage, I did not know who was on Sage, what they had advised, what evidence they had, what minutes…it was incredibly secretive and if you look at the history of Sage, understandably so because you would be worried about, let’s say, foreign governments getting information and names they shouldn’t have.

“But in the case of the pandemic, transparency would have been much better. That was some of the frustration around science being reserved.”

Sridhar also gave the example of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) - which advised UK health departments on immunisation – as something that potentially caused issues for Scotland.

She went on: “Another example is the JCVI […] that is a reserved power.

“So a lot of scientific bodies are in London. The NHIR [National Institute for Health and Care Research] for example. Scottish scientists get their funding through London.”

Sridhar added that “in hindsight” it may have been helpful for the Scottish Government to have set up its own scientific advisory body sooner than it did. She insisted the group had “real transparency” when it was operating.

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The public health expert has previously been vocal about the failings of the UK Government during the crisis, saying in October 2022 that Rishi Sunak – who was chancellor during the outbreak – handled the situation so “badly” because of the “extreme wealth bubble” in which he lives.

She suggested Sunak excluded views from scientists during the Covid emergency unless they supported what he wanted.

Asked what the Government’s “number one largest failure” was during the pandemic, she replied: “Leadership. I think looking back we had a leader (Boris Johnson) who did not take the threat seriously, did not act fast enough, did not want to be decisive.”

Elsewhere during her questioning in Edinburgh on Tuesday, Sridhar said there was fear of “over-reaction” when it came to managing Covid-19 because of the UK and Scotland having a “near miss” with swine flu.

She said: “Here, when people think of infectious disease they think of flu, so that was an issue. We had a near miss with swine flu … (there were) several near misses, so it was like the boy who cried wolf.

“You wouldn’t necessarily assume it would become the daily concern in Scotland, they don’t become global events, swine flu led to a sense of complacency, there was a fear of over-reaction.”

She insisted Britain should have been testing earlier to identify cases and clusters and positive cases should have been quarantined before community transmission of the virus began.

Sridhar added she felt there was a perception in Britain that testing “is for poor countries”.

When speaking about borders, she cited how Norway and Australia had said they managed pandemic better because they limited border entry.

“I was surprised we were very lax about that at the time compared to other countries,” she added.

Sridhar went on to say the UK spent too long debating about whether face masks worked, with other countries moving quicker to adopt them.

Earlier the inquiry heard from Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, who denied he deleted WhatsApp messages as a “pre-bed ritual”.

This was implied by messages shown to the inquiry last week, but Leitch explained he did not delete his WhatsApp exchanges daily but did so once he felt “work had been managed and dealt with” on a particular day.

He insisted throughout the inquiry that he followed Scottish Government guidance on retention and deletion of messages.