'Astonishing if ministers deleted Covid WhatsApp messages'

A row has erupted in Scottish politics about social media messages sent by senior figures during the Covid pandemic.

‘Astonishing if Scottish Government ministers deleted Covid WhatsApp messages’ Getty Images

Pretty early on in the life of the wretched Covid pandemic, it would have been obvious to every politician in every corner of the UK that an inquiry into how key decisions were arrived at was inevitable.

The only questions that were pertinent; what form would the inquiry take and when would it start?

It was inevitable because in the early days a debate raged about whether a lockdown as against a herd immunity strategy should be deployed.

It also became apparent in the early days that there was a shortage of PPE. The number of deaths in care homes brought into sharp focus the issue of hospitals discharging elderly patients who might be carrying the virus.

For those who have operated at a senior level in government, two issues will have been so apparent that they probably didn’t even need to think about them out loud.

First, an inquiry would happen and second every communication between ministers and ministers and officials would be a legitimate area for an inquiry to consider.

It is therefore, simply astonishing if any material number of WhatsApp messages have been deleted by any of the key players. There is zero chance that they would not have known that these exchanges might be of interest.

A WhatsApp exchange which might look on the face of it to be of no particular importance can take on a completely different meaning if it can be put into a different context with references to other exchanges or documents.

Any inquiry is concerned to get a complete picture of the issues facing decision makers. Potentially thousands of messages may have been deleted which, put simply, means the picture is not complete.

Most people come straight to the point on WhatsApp. Most exchanges are measured in sentences, not in paragraphs and they tend to be more candid and arguably, more honest.

The Scottish Government must know if and how many messages have been deleted. Minsters including, the former First Minister, can clear this matter up now, today.

Instead, this story has been allowed to run, growing legs and being a magnet for the view that they all have something to hide.

This has been another badly handled issue by the current First Minister who should have been on top of this from day one. On Monday, he made clear in an interview with STV that he had not deleted any messages.

He has, however, been done no favours by the line being held to by his predecessor.

Nicola Sturgeon says she is cooperating fully with the Covid Inquiry. Her office appears less forthcoming on this issue of whether she deleted messages.

I have no doubt that Scottish minsters acted in good faith and after a careful consideration of all of the expert advice before them during the pandemic.

The articulation of key public health messages from Nicola Sturgeon and the national clinical director Jason Leitch, were models of clarity when compared to the often shambolic ramblings of the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

I do not believe that senior politicians and officials will have had anything to hide, nor do I tend to conspiracy in believing that deleted messages are prima facie evidence of a cover up.

That being said, if messages were deleted on an industrial scale, it drives a coach and horses through the very notion of openness and accountability.

If you delete, you are not being open and you therefore can’t be held accountable for views that have been expunged.

In the process, you short-change the public, parliament and the very inquiry charged with understanding why elected politicians and unelected officials took the decisions that they did.

Let me repeat. Given how long these politicians have been around it is inconceivable that they would have not known that their communications would be pertinent to an inquiry they knew was coming.

The Scottish Parliamentary mace is inscribed with the words: ‘Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Integrity.’

Perhaps someone should point this out to some current and former minsters.

If these messages have been deleted, then a series of deliberate acts will have taken place that undermines the very values those same politicians are supposed to uphold.

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