Amid reports of deleted WhatsApp messages pertaining to decisions made during the Covid-19 pandemic, Scottish ministers are facing scrutiny from legal experts.
Aamer Anwar, the lead solicitor for the Scottish Covid Bereaved group in both the Scottish and UK Covid Inquiries, emphasized the importance of making these messages public. He stressed that this transparency is crucial to offer the public an unvarnished account of events, rather than a sanitized version.
This concern arises in the wake of revelations that key WhatsApp messages were manually removed from the phone of Nicola Sturgeon, who held the position of First Minister during the pandemic. While a spokesperson for the former SNP leader has assured that she will continue to provide all necessary information to the inquiry, Anwar voiced apprehensions during an interview with the BBC.
Anwar pointed out, “‘That she holds’ — what about the material that’s been deleted? We want answers. Why delete it? May 27, 2020, she stood up in the Scottish parliament and said there was a public inquiry. An order should have gone out immediately to say no destruction of any evidence anywhere.”
The spotlight isn’t solely on Sturgeon, as there have been allegations that Jason Leitch, the national clinical director, deleted messages on a daily basis throughout the pandemic. Anwar highlighted that the Covid Inquiry was informed that up to 70 senior government ministers and senior civil servants were involved in either not retaining, manually deleting, or possibly even auto-deleting their WhatsApp messages.
Previously, First Minister Humza Yousaf initiated an investigation after it was revealed that the Scottish Government had not yet provided certain messages. The lead counsel in the Scotland module of the inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC, disclosed this information during a hearing.
In a note addressed to the inquiry, Dawson and the legal team underscored, “It is currently understood that although WhatsApps appear to have been used to send messages relating to and surrounding key decisions by some members of Scottish Government, the majority of the messages have not been retained by witnesses.”
Anwar reiterated that there are crucial questions that demand answers regarding the reported deletion of these messages. He emphasized the need to understand when this deletion policy was implemented, who authorized it, why it wasn’t halted, and whether it persisted after the fact.
In a similar vein, WhatsApp messages from former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson were initially withheld, with the Cabinet Office claiming they would only provide pertinent messages. However, a High Court ruling compelled them to release the messages in their entirety, underscoring that the determination of relevance rested with the inquiry’s chair, Heather Hallett.
Anwar emphasized that the messages unveiled after the court ruling revealed a culture of impunity, denial, and chaos at the heart of Number 10. He stressed that without access to these WhatsApp messages, the public would have received a sanitized version of events.
A spokesperson for Sturgeon assured the Sunday Mail that she remains committed to providing all necessary information for the inquiry. The Scottish Government also affirmed its dedication to cooperating fully with the Covid-19 inquiries, ensuring the provision of any requested material they possess. They have already submitted over 13,000 documents to the UK Inquiry, prioritizing the formal decision-making record. The UK Inquiry has additionally requested WhatsApp messages pertaining to logistical and day-to-day communications, which the Scottish Government is actively working to provide.