John Swinney “manually” deleted messages between himself, Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf in a practice which could date back to 2007, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.
The former deputy first minister said he rarely spoke to the former first minister via text messages or other informal means, saying texts were generally only used to set up a phone call.
These messages, he told the inquiry, were deleted in accordance with Scottish Government guidance.
With the current occupant of Bute House, however, the inquiry heard there were some 18 pages of WhatsApp messages between the two men.
Swinney had deleted the messages, which were recovered from an old handset of Yousaf’s and subsequently submitted to the inquiry.
The former deputy first minister – who also held roles overseeing education, Covid recovery and finance in his time in Government – defended his lack of retention of messages, which he said was in line with guidance from the Scottish Government, issued in 2021.
He also added that he had held the same deletion practice since becoming a minister in 2007, based on advice from his private office at the time.
Asked why he had deleted the messages with Ms Sturgeon, Swinney said: “I was advised by my private office that I should not hold information that was relevant to the government’s official record in what were called ungoverned sources.
“Throughout my ministerial career I have deleted material after I have made sure any relevant information was placed on the official record of the government, and that was the approach I was advised to take.”
He added: “That was advice given to me by my private office as far back as 2007 when I entered government and it was also consistent in my view with the government’s record management policy.
“I also think it is consistent with the obligations of the ministerial code.”
Asked about the retention of messages between himself and Yousaf, Swinney said: “They would be deleted by periodic deletion once I was satisfied I had told my private office any info that was relevant so that I was not facing a large number of messages that I would potentially have to delete on one occasion.”
The way he handled messages, Swinney said, was consistent with Scottish Government policy, but “apologised unreservedly” if he had misunderstood the guidance.
Asked by lead counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC if there was a “defect” in the policy, rather than Swinney’s adherence to it, the MSP said: “That might well be the case, and what I would say to the inquiry was that I believed what I was doing was consistent with that policy and I was doing nothing during Covid that I wasn’t doing at any stage the previous 13 years of my ministerial life.
“My handling of information had at no stage been questioned in that process.”
The former deputy first minister appeared before the inquiry on Tuesday to give evidence, where he said he worked “all the hours that god sent” during the pandemic.
Earlier, the inquiry heard that the Scottish Government’s equivalent of Cobra meetings – the Scottish Government Resilience Room (SGoRR) – had not been minuted.
The group is generally only stood up when there is a crisis to be managed, such as serious flooding or pressures in the NHS.
The news comes after the inquiry earlier heard meetings of senior ministers outwith the regular cabinet meetings – the so-called “gold command” group – were also not minuted.
During an evidence session with former finance secretary Kate Forbes, Dawson said: “Neither the SGoRR nor the gold group meetings are minuted, is that correct?”
To which Forbes said: “That surprises me and this would be the first of me hearing it.”
Dawson said: “The reason we think that is the case is we have obviously asked the Scottish Government for all of its papers concerning these matters and although we have cabinet minutes, we don’t have minuted records of either of those groups.
“It becomes difficult to understand what the ultimate decision-making process was when there is no record of how those decisions were taken.”
Forbes responded: “I can understand that frustration.”
The former finance secretary added that she was unaware of the gold command group’s existence until she was invited in 2021.
She also told the inquiry she had kept her WhatsApp messages up until January 2022.
Forbes also spoke of her “immense sorrow” for the impact the pandemic had on people.
She told the inquiry: “Can I use the opportunity to express my immense sorrow at the devastation that was wreaked amongst so many families, but also the personal cost and loss for those that had to shield, those that had to isolate and particularly those those who were separated from families during that period?”
She agreed more could have been done to support vulnerable people throughout the pandemic.
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