BEFORE Nicola Sturgeon had even spoken a word at the UK Covid Inquiry, there were headlines announcing that her legacy had been ruined by the row over deletion of WhatsApp messages.

But as she was speaking at the hearing, it was clear not everyone thought that way – as #IStandWithNicola began trending on Twitter.

Meanwhile, a member of the audience who spoke on BBC's Question Time on Thursday to defend the former first minister’s record on the pandemic was greeted with a round of applause.

There’s little doubt Sturgeon has been under intense scrutiny in the storm over the issue of government WhatsApp messages and their deletion.

READ MORE: UK Covid Inquiry: Humza Yousaf apologises for handling of WhatsApp messages

She repeatedly fought back tears during her marathon evidence session at the UK Covid Inquiry last Wednesday (below) as she said she will always “carry regret” at decisions she and her Government got wrong during the pandemic.

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Stuart Nicolson, who served as Sturgeon’s head of communications until she resigned last year, said some of the coverage around the “supposed tarnishing” of her legacy was “entirely predictable”.

He also raised concerns that the coverage of the Covid-19 inquiry meant it turning into a “gotcha” exercise and losing focus on the purpose to learn lessons for the future.

Nicolson said: “All the people who are claiming that Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy has been in some ways tarnished – they are the same people that have been saying she has no legacy to defend in the first place. They can’t have it both ways.

“The airwaves and column inches are full of people saying Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy is bust or it's broken or it's tarnished, but these are the same voices who have never conceded or admitted that she has any legacy in the first place.”

Nicolson highlighted that the inquiry has been told around 5000 WhatsApp messages on former prime minister Boris Johnson’s phone at the beginning of the pandemic had gone missing.

READ MORE: Alister Jack admits deleting every single WhatsApp from during Covid

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor during the pandemic, also told the inquiry he was unable to provide his WhatsApp messages from that time, while Alister Jack admitted to deleting every single message.

Nicolson said: “We don’t know what all their texts or WhatsApp were because they have not even admitted in their case to deleting them, they have just come up with some various convoluted stories about how they have been lost.

“The bottom line is the treatment of Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of messages is of a whole different magnitude in the way it’s been portrayed than anything applied to the likes of Johnson, Sunak or indeed Alister Jack. That is undeniable, that is clear as day.”

He said the purpose of such inquiries should be to learn lessons for the future – and not be turned into a “political point-scoring exercise or a scapegoating exercise”.

He added: “In terms of the way things are being portrayed, whether it is reaction from various opposition figures or the way it is being reported, it just seems it is being turned into a 'gotcha' exercise which is absolutely not what the purpose of these inquiries should be.”

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Only three months ago, Sturgeon (above) was mobbed by supporters and reporters when she arrived at the SNP's annual conference in Aberdeen.

Whether the fallout from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry will have a lasting impact on Sturgeon’s legacy is yet to be seen, according to one polling expert.

Mark Diffley, founder and director of the Diffley Partnership, pointed out that there was no polling to base conclusions on in the aftermath of her appearance at the Covid inquiry last week.

He said: “I know that is a relatively obvious thing to say, but on the other hand there’s a lot of conclusions being jumped to here which may or may not be borne out by what we see in the data collected subsequent to her appearance.

“Nonetheless, it’s absolutely true to say both her personally in terms of what we measure in polls around her reputation in favourability rating and trustworthiness and in terms of the SNP more broadly, they have declined quite significantly over the last year or so.”

He pointed to a poll carried out last weekend, which found 32% of Scottish voters trust Sturgeon – saying this showed a big decline compared to during the Covid pandemic, when it was around 50%.

READ MORE: UK Covid Inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon called Boris Johnson a 'f****** clown'

Diffley also highlighted a huge drop in popularity for Boris Johnson during his time as prime minister as a result of partygate, saying it showed there was a precedent for reputations to be impacted by how leaders were perceived to have behaved during Covid.

But he added: “My argument would be we don’t know if that includes Nicola Sturgeon yet.

“I think we will at some point, I suspect there will be pollsters asking those questions in fairly short order, but we absolutely can’t say that yet.

“What we can say is that her reputation has taken a hit for other reasons and I would argue the main reason her reputation has taken a hit over the last year is what has happened with SNP finances and the police investigation, rather than as a result of Covid and revelations about WhatsApp messages.”

He added: “There will be people I’m sure out there who, regardless of revelations about WhatsApp messages and so forth, will still favourably contrast her behaviour and her efforts during Covid with the UK Government at the same time.

“So I think we have to pretty careful here about how the public perceives this.”