Scottish ministers to release 14,000 Covid WhatsApp messages

The Scottish government will hand over more than 14,000 electronic messages, mainly WhatsApps, to the UK Covid Inquiry, Deputy First Minister Shona Robison has announced.

She also said First Minister Humza Yousaf would share his messages.

The government had been criticised for not handing over all relevant data to the UK Covid Inquiry, with senior figures accused of deleting files.

Nicola Sturgeon refused to say whether or not she had erased any messages.

Speaking to reporters in the Scottish Parliament, the former first minister said she had "nothing to hide".

"I did not manage the Covid response by WhatsApp," said the ex-SNP leader, who is alleged to have manually deleted messages.

"For example, I was not a member of any WhatsApp groups. I managed the Covid response from my office in St Andrews House."

She added: "I will set out in full to the inquiry how I operated, what I hold, what I don't hold and the reasons for that."

Opposition MSPs have accused ministers of a cover-up.

During a statement to parliament, Ms Robison apologised to bereaved families for "any lack of clarity" about material provided to the inquiries.

She said the Scottish government received a request in September from the UK Covid Inquiry to hand over WhatsApp messages from officials, ministers and former ministers related to the pandemic.

Ms Robison confirmed the Scottish government had been issued a formal legal order, under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, to release the material, which she said was necessary due to data privacy concerns.

The deputy first minister said that "all requested messages held will be shared in full and unredacted" by Monday.

In addition to "hundreds" of messages already submitted, Ms Robison said this would include more than 14,000 mainly WhatsApp messages from officials, ministers and former ministers.

"It will be for individuals to explain to the inquiries they have taken in relation to record retention," she told MSPs.

She added that First Minister Humza Yousaf would hand over unredacted WhatsApp messages to the inquiry in the coming days.

Analysis box by David Wallace Lockhart, BBC Scotland political correspondent
Analysis box by David Wallace Lockhart, BBC Scotland political correspondent

There was one question Nicola Sturgeon was asked multiple times that she would not answer: Did you delete any whatsapp messages?

She told reporters that she has to respect the ongoing inquiry processes, and therefore she cannot get into these specifics.

That is slightly undermined by the fact that her successor, Humza Yousaf, has confirmed that he has kept all of his from the time of the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon stressed multiple times that she feels all of her actions were in line with government policies.

This was the first time the former first minister faced the press since reports about her messages. But this will not be the last time she's quizzed on this issue.

Counsel to the UK inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC, has said that 70 Scottish government figures, operating in a total of 137 messaging groups, have been asked for their WhatsApp messages but "very few appear to have been retained" - despite an order not to destroy messages being issued last year.

It is not yet clear whether the 14,000 messages cited by Ms Robison included data previously assumed to be permanently deleted and unavailable to the inquiry.

Ms Robison said that under the government's records management policy, information shared on mobile applications such as WhatsApp that is relevant to the corporate record must be saved.

She said there was not and never had been a need to record material "without business value to be retained as part of the corporate record".

The deputy first minister added that there had never been a requirement for "any official, let alone ministers" to auto-delete messages without ensuring that relevant information from them was saved first.

Humza Yousaf
First Minister Humza Yousaf says he has not deleted messages

She added: "In instances where it appears as though messages may not be available, including through deletion in line with civil service policies on data management and retention, advice has been sought as to whether device owners or a third party are able to recover material.

"We will, of course, continue to fully co-operate with both inquiries and will share any additional messages, should more become available or further material be requested."

Asked about when messages had been deleted, and whether data from key government figures during the pandemic would be included in full, Ms Robison said she did not know due to confidentiality rules around personal communications.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the "stench of secrecy from this government is overpowering" as he accused ministers of a "cover-up".

Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said key material had been "destroyed on an industrial scale". She said there had been a "deliberate and co-ordinated withholding of information".

The UK Covid Inquiry
The UK Covid Inquiry

Ms Sturgeon announced in May 2020 that there would be a Scottish Covid inquiry in addition to the UK probe. This was confirmed in August 2021.

The Scottish inquiry issued a "do not destroy" order at the beginning of August 2022, meaning it could be an offence for witnesses to have deleted Covid-related messages after that date.

Mr Yousaf told MSPs in June that all requested material from electronic apps and email would "absolutely" be handed over to the Covid inquiries in full.

Senior members of the Scottish government's leadership team from during the pandemic - including Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney - have been accused of wiping messages or using an auto-delete function.

Mr Yousaf - who served as health secretary from May 2021 before becoming first minister in March 2023 - denied deleting any files and said he would "fully" comply with both inquiries.

However, the first minister later told reporters there had been a Scottish government policy on social media messaging which advised their deletion after 30 days.

This is despite the government's records management policy stating that data is kept for as long as necessary to support business requirements and legal obligations.

The government said staff were supposed to transfer information from informal sources like WhatsApp to the official system of record before deletion.

John Swinney
John Swinney has reportedly deleted WhatsApp messages

Mr Swinney refused to confirm or deny whether he routinely deleted WhatsApp messages during the pandemic.

The former deputy first minister told BBC Scotland he was "engaging fully and constructively" with the inquiry.

National clinical director Jason Leitch has been accused of deleting messages every day during the pandemic, while chief medical officer Prof Sir Gregor Smith is alleged to have used an auto-delete function on WhatsApp messages.

Both have been approached for comment.

WhatsApp announced it was introducing the auto-delete function in November 2020, eight months after the pandemic was declared, suggesting messages before then could be recovered unless manually deleted.