COVID Inquiry: Scottish Ministers Set to Release 14,000 COVID-19 WhatsApp Messages

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The Scottish government has committed to providing over 14,000 WhatsApp messages to the UK Covid Inquiry, according to Deputy First Minister Shona Robison. Additionally, First Minister Humza Yousaf will also share his messages.

This announcement comes after criticism directed at the government for not fully cooperating with the inquiry and allegations of message deletions by senior figures.

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, when asked, did not confirm whether she had deleted any messages, but emphasized that she had nothing to hide. She clarified that she did not manage the Covid response through WhatsApp and was not a member of any related groups. Sturgeon asserted that she oversaw the response from her office at St Andrews House and pledged to provide a comprehensive account to the inquiry regarding her operations and data holdings.

Opposition MSPs have accused the government of attempting to cover up information. In a statement to the parliament, Deputy First Minister Robison expressed regret for any lack of clarity regarding the material provided to the inquiries.

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The Scottish government received a formal legal order from the UK Covid Inquiry in September, requesting WhatsApp messages related to the pandemic from officials, ministers, and former ministers. This move was necessitated by concerns over data privacy. Robison assured that all requested messages, including over 14,000 primarily from WhatsApp, will be shared in full and unredacted by November 6th.

The Counsel to the UK inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC, disclosed that 70 Scottish government figures across 137 messaging groups were asked for their WhatsApp messages, but only a few appear to have been retained, despite a prior order not to delete messages. It remains unclear whether the 14,000 messages mentioned by Robison encompass previously assumed permanently deleted data.

Robison emphasized that under the government’s records management policy, relevant information shared on platforms like WhatsApp must be preserved. She clarified that material lacking business value need not be retained as part of the corporate record. Additionally, there has never been a requirement for officials or ministers to auto-delete messages without first ensuring that pertinent information is saved.

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Regarding the timing of message deletions and whether data from key government figures during the pandemic will be included in full, Robison cited confidentiality rules around personal communications as the reason she couldn’t provide specifics.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross criticized the government, alleging a “stench of secrecy” and accusing them of a “cover-up.” Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie echoed this sentiment, claiming that critical material had been “destroyed on an industrial scale” and accusing the government of a “deliberate and coordinated withholding of information.”

In May 2020, Sturgeon announced a Scottish Covid inquiry alongside the UK probe. The Scottish inquiry issued a “do not destroy” order in August 2022, making it potentially unlawful for witnesses to have deleted Covid-related messages after that date. First Minister Yousaf assured in June that all requested material from electronic apps and email would be fully provided to the Covid inquiries.

Senior members of the government’s leadership team have faced allegations of message deletions or use of auto-delete functions. Yousaf denied deleting any files and pledged full compliance with the inquiries.

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Sturgeon later stated that there was a government policy advising the deletion of social media messages after 30 days, despite the records management policy stating data should be retained as long as necessary for business requirements and legal obligations. Staff were instructed to transfer information from informal sources to the official record system before deletion.

John Swinney, former deputy first minister, did not confirm or deny routine message deletions during the pandemic. National clinical director Jason Leitch and chief medical officer Prof Sir Gregor Smith have also faced allegations of message deletions.

WhatsApp introduced the auto-delete function in November 2020, implying that messages prior to this date could potentially be recovered unless manually deleted.

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