SNP business minister Jamie Hepburn broke his own government’s coronavirus election rules and then deleted a social media post evidencing the breach, it can be revealed.
Mr Hepburn is the third government minister to fall foul of legal restrictions since the official campaign period for May’s Scottish Parliament elections got underway on Thursday and the second to delete evidence without acknowledging the gaffe.
Nicola Sturgeon said on Tuesday that deputy first minister John Swinney and parliamentary business minister Graeme Dey were “in the wrong” for their own breaches, adding that both ministers have apologised and are “pretty mortified”.
But we can reveal Mr Hepburn, the SNP’s candidate for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, posted a picture of himself and at least five other party activists out on the campaign trail on Saturday afternoon at 12.30pm.
The post, which tagged SNP Cumbernauld North councillor Alan Masterton, read: “Your socially distanced, masked and ready to go Cumbernauld and Kilsyth SNP campaign team out in Smithstone and Croy today.”
Mr Hepburn did not respond to a request for comment on why he deleted the picture but it came after party bosses were contacted by us in regards to the breach by Mr Dey the previous day.
An SNP spokesman later said: “Activists arrived having travelled separately for click-and-collect of campaign leaflets. A socially-distanced picture was taken before everyone went their separate ways to deliver them on their own.
“However, there were too many people in the picture, which sent out the wrong message, so Jamie deleted the tweet.”
Candidates face restrictions
Candidates and their agents are allowed to travel to the constituency or region in which their standing if the activity cannot be done from home, and party leaders are allowed to travel with “the minimal number necessary of supporting staff”.
However, election hopefuls have been told a maximum of four people from two households are able to meet up at any one time, similar to existing rules on gatherings.
The guidance also states campaigners may only currently take part in leafleting, with face-to-face doorstep canvassing banned until at least April 5, dependent on infection rates remaining low.
Scottish Conservative chief whip, Miles Briggs, said: “With another SNP government minister breaching campaigning restrictions, it is clear that the guidance in place needs to be urgently clarified.
“Everyone with an interest in politics is keen to get out and about but they must keep themselves and voters safe at all times.
“These SNP ministers clearly knew in hindsight that they had broken rules that they were responsible for setting. They will no doubt be embarrassed but any continued confusion is extremely unhelpful.
“As restrictions hopefully continue to ease in the coming weeks, there should be no doubts left about what campaigners can and cannot do.”
‘Ministers should be setting an example’
Paul McGarry, who is standing as the lead candidate for the Liberal Democrats in the Central Scotland region, said: “Three ministers have now broken the rules and the campaign hasn’t even been going for a week.
“I hope that the SNP will now learn their lesson and remember ministers should be setting an example.”
Graeme Dey, the minister who first announced the election coronavirus rules to MSPs earlier this month, broke those rules on the first day of campaigning by holding an outdoor gathering at Carnoustie Beach.
He was later “spoken to” by police and offered his “unreserved apologies” before removing pictures of the gathering from social media.
John Swinney also apologised after he took a selfie with four other SNP activists while out leafleting and then deleted it after Mr Dey’s breach came to light.
Speaking at a Scottish Government coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon said no-one was infallible, referring to her own “mishap” over Christmas where she was seen speaking to others without a mask.
“The ministers, Graeme and John, who made a mistake around the size of gatherings when they were leafleting, were in the wrong,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“Both of them have apologised. If, as many of you do, you know either of them and how seriously they take their responsibilities – they are both pretty mortified at having done that. None of us, unfortunately, are perfect and none of us are infallible.
“I think it’s really important that when people like me who are asking people to follow these rules do slip up you’re really upfront about it and apologise and continue to ask people to do the right thing for all of the right reasons.”