Scottish Government 'must learn lessons over informal message use'

A lawyer representing the Scottish Government said it must learn lessons from the handling of informal messages.

Scottish Government must learn lessons over informal message use, UK Covid Inquiry told PA Media

The Scottish Government must “learn lessons” from its handling of informal messages after evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry uncovered officials regularly deleted messages throughout the pandemic.

In closing submissions to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, which explored decision-making in Scotland, Geoffrey Mitchell KC, on behalf of the Scottish Government, said it was “clear to the Scottish Government” that it “must learn lessons” around its handling of the situation.

Throughout the three weeks of evidence, the inquiry learned that key Scottish Government figures including former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and former deputy first minister, John Swinney, had deleted their WhatsApp messages from the period covering the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mitchell insisted in his closing submission that the informal messages that had been shared with the inquiry showed people “working together constructively and intensely at all hours of the day and night to support ministers in their decision-making”.

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Edinburgh.
Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Edinburgh.

He said the inquiry had material before it which will “enable it to ascertain whether the decisions carried out in the formal record are those recorded in formal systems”.

He said that the requirement to transfer the salient points made in any business discussion or decision is taken very seriously, but the “difficulty” was that not all individuals followed it or it was “inconsistent interpretation” in its meaning.

Mitchell said: “It is right and proper that the Scottish Government acknowledges both the inquiry’s – and the public’s – confidence with regard to informal messages during the pandemic.

“It is clear to the Scottish Government that it must learn lessons in this area.”

The Scottish Covid Bereaved group, represented by solicitor Aamer Anwar, have criticised the Government’s actions, with Anwar confirming they would look at the possibility of calling for a criminal investigation into the practice.

Mitchell told the inquiry following the oral evidence from key witnesses which included Nicola Sturgeon, first minister Humza Yousaf and national clinical director Jason Leitch, that the Scottish Government “can learn” and is “listening”.

Solicitor Aamer Anwar with members of the Scottish Covid Bereaved Group.
Solicitor Aamer Anwar with members of the Scottish Covid Bereaved Group.

He said: “Throughout the pandemic, the Scottish Government’s prime focus and intention was to protect the public, the people of Scotland, as best it could from the harms of the disease.

“The Scottish Government knowledges that it did not get everything right

“Where there were missteps, it deeply regrets them. The decisions were taken in good faith.”

On Thursday, the final day of evidence for the module, Scottish secretary Alister Jack said he deleted all of his WhatsApp messages to free up space on his phone.

Asked about his own messages at the inquiry, Jack said: “I didn’t delete some of the messages – I deleted all of them.

“I deleted WhatsApps from my mother, my wife, my friends – I mean I just deleted all my WhatsApps – because that created the capacity that allowed my phone to carry on.”

The Scottish secretary said he previously had a phone with 64 gigabytes of storage, but now has 512 gigabytes of capacity on his current device.

“At the time, I didn’t think anything of it,” he added.

Alister Jack told the UK Covid-19 inquiry that he deleted all of his WhatsApp messages.
Alister Jack told the UK Covid-19 inquiry that he deleted all of his WhatsApp messages.

Jack told the inquiry, at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre before Lady Heather Hallett, he did not conduct “Government by WhatsApp”, preferring to speak to colleagues on the phone or face to face.

He also told the inquiry he saw Nicola Sturgeon’s evidence on Wednesday and “did not believe her for a minute” adding, “she could cry from one eye if she wanted to”.

In her closing statement, Claire Mitchell KC, on behalf of the Scottish Covid Bereaved, said those who had lost loved ones to the virus campaigned for the public inquiry for answers.

She said: “They did not campaign for this inquiry to discuss WhatsApps and the minutiae of Scottish Government’s guidelines.

“It is a matter of deep regret to the bereaved that these important matters have been, through no fault of the inquiry, overshadowed by the absence of WhatsApps.”

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