The Scottish Government’s transparency is under scrutiny as the inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic continues.
The UK Covid-19 inquiry requested that all messages relating to decision making during the pandemic were provided.
However, in recent days reports emerged that former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Government clinical director Jason Leitch were among dozens of government figures whose WhatsApp messages were not retained.
Ferret Fact Service explains what is going on.
Why does the inquiry want WhatsApp messages?
The UK Covid inquiry was set up to analyse government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact. It has the authority to make governments and individuals produce documentation, including messages related to decision making, and can call witnesses to give evidence under oath.
While its actions fall under the remit of the UK Covid-19 inquiry, the Scottish Government also announced an independent inquiry into its handling of the pandemic.
The UK Covid inquiry requested Scottish Government ministers and officials to hand over their WhatsApp messages in order to assess the thinking behind key decision-making during the pandemic. The request followed a release of WhatsApp messages from UK officials and politicians which has been examined by the inquiry in evidence over recent days.
Jamie Dawson KC, the counsel to the inquiry, stated that “the issue and content of informal communications, in particular WhatsApp messages, has become a prominent part of the Inquiry’s investigations into core decision-making by the UK Government”.
He further explained that some discussion around Scotland’s Covid-19 response had taken place through unofficial messaging channels such as WhatsApp, Signal, Microsoft Teams and text messages.
He said that 137 messaging groups had been identified, and the inquiry had asked for the messages of 70 people to be handed over.
Has the Scottish Government released messages?
Dawson expressed surprise that a number of the officials and politicians had not kept their communications, with many deleted or not retained.
He told the inquiry: “A clear theme of the overall response received from and via the Scottish government is that although such messaging systems were used in the pandemic response, including by some key decision makers and others, generally very few messages appear to have been retained”.
“This is surprising, in particular, in light of the apparent availability of such messages in high volumes within the UK Government.”
Media subsequently reported that former first minister Nicola Sturgeon had not retained her WhatsApp messages from the pandemic period, nor had Scottish Government clinical director, Jason Leitch.
Sturgeon has so far refused to confirm whether her messages were deleted.
First Minister Humza Yousaf, who was health secretary during the pandemic, stated he had not deleted any messages, as has former finance secretary, Kate Forbes.
The Scottish Government received a request from the inquiry to hand over WhatsApp messages in September, but no messages were initially released. A formal legal order, under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, was then made and the Scottish Government said it would release more than 14,000 messages from officials and ministers during the pandemic period.
Why did some Scottish Government ministers and officials delete WhatsApp messages?
Scottish ministers have said that government policy was not decided through WhatsApp, but there has been controversy over reports that some ministers and officials deleted messages.
First Minister Humza Yousaf told reporters on 30 October that government policy at the time was to delete messages. He said: “We had a social media messaging policy which actually required us to routinely delete WhatsApp messages. That was the policy at the time.”
What was Scottish Government policy?
This policy is set out in the mobile messaging guidance which is part of the Scottish Government’s records management policy. It was introduced in November 2021 and states that use of mobile phone messaging, such as WhatsApp “does not change your responsibility within [the] Scottish Government to maintain complete and comprehensive records of key conversations and decisions”.
Officials and ministers were told to delete messages on mobile messaging apps, but only after they had transcribed important points into an email or document to be saved in the Scottish Government’s electronic record keeping system. This was expected to be done at least monthly.
Failure to submit these records could risk non-compliance with the Public Records (Scotland) Act, the guidance states.
The records management policy states that information and records should be kept “only as long as they are required to support the Scottish Government in its business requirements and legal obligations”.
Were government figures told to keep messages?
The Scottish Covid inquiry sent out ‘do not destroy’ notices to key witnesses including the Scottish Government in August 2022. This means it could be against the law if ministers or officials deleted messages after this date. It is not clear whether messages were deleted after the ‘do not destroy’ notices.
When she was first minister, Nicola Sturgeon stated in May 2020 that there would be a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Scottish inquiry was officially announced in August 2021.
What did messages from Westminster show?
WhatsApp messages released as part of the UK inquiry showed that considerable discussion around policy and decision-making was made in these informal channels.
Messages posted by officials and advisors including Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, revealed how senior figures felt about the handling of the early stages of the pandemic and its public messaging.
This included Cummings urging the then-prime minister to announce that those feeling ill with Covid-19 symptoms should stay away from their workplaces, and concern among Number 10 press officers about the prime minister’s changing strategy.
It also revealed that Johnson doubted the severity of the virus itself, comparing it to Swine flu and also questioned the existence of long Covid.
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