WhatsApp revelations dominate as key figures appear at Covid inquiry

Professor Jason Leitch to give evidence on Tuesday amid furore over the deletion of WhatsApp messages during the pandemic.

The spotlight shines this week on some of the most influential figures involved in Scotland’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Professor Jason Leitch, who advised the Scottish Government as national clinical director, and First Minister Humza Yousaf are among those due to give evidence as the Covid-19 inquiry continues to sit in Edinburgh.

Former FM Nicola Sturgeon is due to appear at the inquiry later this month. She has already given evidence in a previous appearance last June, saying the government she led during the pandemic “did our best… but did not get everything right”.

This week’s evidence takes place amid the backdrop of a political row over the deletion of WhatsApp exchanges among ministers – including Sturgeon – and senior officials during the pandemic.

STV News takes a look at the current state of play.

What was the inquiry told about Nicola Sturgeon’s WhatsApp messages?

The inquiry was told last week that all of Sturgeon’s WhatsApp messages during the pandemic had been deleted.

Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, said “messages were not retained, they were deleted in routine tidying up of inboxes or changes of phones, unable to retrieve messages” in relation to Sturgeon’s correspondence.

In 2021, during one of the regular Covid-19 briefings she held, Sturgeon gave an assurance that correspondence – including messages – would be handed to any future inquiry.

Nicola Sturgeon delivers Covid briefing

She was asked by a reporter: “Can you guarantee to the bereaved families that you will disclose e-mails, WhatsApps, private emails if you’ve been using them, whatever; that nothing will be off limits in this inquiry?”.

In response, Sturgeon said: “I think if you understand statutory public inquiries, you would know that even if I wasn’t prepared to give that assurance – for the avoidance of doubt, I am – then I wouldn’t have the ability (to conceal messages).

“This will be a judge-led, statutory, public inquiry.”

Has Sturgeon responded to the latest revelations?

Yes. Sturgeon said the inquiry does have messages between herself and those she regularly communicated with, and that decisions on the pandemic were recorded formally in line with Scottish Government policy.

In a message posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, she said: “To be clear, I conducted the Covid response through formal processes from my office in St Andrews House, not through WhatsApp or any other informal messaging platform.

“I was not a member of any WhatsApp groups. The number of people I communicated with through informal messaging at all was limited.

“Also, any handwritten notes made by me were passed to my private office to be dealt with and recorded as appropriate.”

Sturgeon confirmed that the messages were not retained on her own device but they were obtained through copies submitted in 2023.

What was the policy around keeping WhatsApp messages during Covid?

Professor Sir Gregor Smith, Scotland’s chief medical officer, told the inquiry on Monday he told colleagues to delete WhatsApp messages “at the end of every day” during the pandemic.

His testimony added to a growing political storm around the retention of informal messages by senior decision makers and their advisers during the handling of Covid-19.

During an appearance before the inquiry on Monday, as it continues to take evidence in Edinburgh, a message from the chief medical officer in a group chat in July 2021 with other government medical advisers was shown for the first time.

Deputy chief medical officer, Professor Graham Ellis, said “hope this isn’t FOI-able?” in reference to freedom of information, in an exchange where he appeared to joke about having “my own supply” of cannabis.

Responding, Sir Gregor said: “Delete at the end of every day…”

Sir Gregor went on to say advice had been given to Scottish Government employees to regularly delete informal messages, “partly for security purposes”.

Last week, the inquiry saw a message from Leitch that suggested he deleted WhatsApp messages every day.

In the message exchange, Ken Thomson, the former director-general for strategy and external affairs at the Scottish Government, said he felt “moved to remind you at this point that this channel is FOI-recoverable”, to which Leitch – after another member of the group recommended they “clear the chat” – said: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”

The hearing in Edinburgh was also told that Sturgeon’s then-deputy John Swinney’s WhatsApp messaging was set to auto-delete.

Concerns from Information Commissioner

Scotland’s information commissioner said he is “concerned” by recent revelations at the inquiry, saying there may be implications for freedom of information.

David Hamilton, whose remit is to enforce freedom of information law, was asked about the issue on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Monday.

He said: “What we need to look at is the principles of the freedom of information regime, and that’s my locus in this, not the particular aspects of the inquiry.

“Some of the threads which came out there are a bit concerning frankly.”

He added: “We need to look at that and see if there is an issue for freedom of information that I need to be looking at.”

Hamilton said he is committed to protecting the freedom of information regime, saying it is “critical to democracy”.

Police Scotland has not received any complaints in relation to the deletion of WhatsApp messages by government officials.

What has been the political response?

There has been a furious response across the political spectrum to the evidence.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton accused Sturgeon of “deceiving” bereaved families after the inquiry was told on Friday that messages sent and received by the former SNP leader had been erased.

He has now written to Sturgeon to demand she faces scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Labour deputy Jackie Baille described the news as “a shocking betrayal of the people of Scotland”, while the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, said Sturgeon and Swinney “have huge questions to answer over their conduct in the wake of this devastating revelation”.

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