Scotland’s First Minister has said he has not deleted WhatsApp messages relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, following press reports his predecessor and senior officials may have.
Last week a note to the chairman of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry from one of its counsels said the inquiry was of the belief that the “majority” of informal messages, including on WhatsApp had “not been retained”.
The First Minister said on Monday he had retained his messages, but that there had been a Scottish Government policy on social media messaging which advised their deletion after 30 days.
Press reports in recent days suggested former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch and chief medical officer Dr Sir Gregor Smith may have deleted messages either manually or through the use of the app’s auto-delete function.
Speaking to the PA news agency on Monday, the First Minister said: “I don’t know why there’s been press reports suggesting I’ve deleted my WhatsApp messages, that’s not true.
“I’ve retained my WhatsApp messages and, of course, whatever the Covid Inquiry asks for, I’ll be absolutely prepared to hand them over as I would for the Scottish inquiry too.”
Asked if Ms Sturgeon, Prof Leitch and Sir Gregor had deleted their messages, the First Minister was unable to say, but added that he would expect the officials to have retained messages relevant to the inquiry.
“They will have to answer for themselves, I can’t answer for the former first minister, I haven’t seen her statement to the Covid Inquiry,” he said.
“As for Jason Leitch and also Gregor, the chief medical officer, my expectation would be that they retain whatever information that is relevant to the inquiry, particularly after the do not destroy notice.
“So, it’s important for them to make sure that they satisfy that do not destroy notice.”
A spokeswoman for Ms Sturgeon said she would fully co-operate with the inquiries and had just submitted a statement which ran to about 200 pages.
A clip of Nicola Sturgeon speaking during one of the near-daily coronavirus briefings held during the pandemic which has resurfaced online showed her pledging to provide any inquiries with the necessary communications.
Asked why a blanket policy was not installed to ensure ministers and officials saved all messages from after the announcement of an inquiry – which Scotland was the first in the UK to do – the First Minister said it would be “very difficult” and would have gone against Government social media policy which suggested the deletion of messages after 30 days.
He added: “The important thing, I don’t think is always necessarily whether you communicate over email, whether you communicate over WhatsApp, whether you have a telephone call, the point is that if a decision is made, then it’s properly recorded within our records management system.
“That was done – of course, many documents have been handed over to the inquiry, somewhere in the order of 13,000.”
Asked if the deletion of messages could damage the credibility of both the Scottish and UK-wide inquiries, the First Minister did not answer, saying instead that any decisions would have been logged in the Scottish Government’s records management system.
“Of course, that’s important – people need to know what decisions were made and, rightly, can question us on why those decisions were made when we appear in front of any of the inquiries.”
Deputy First Minister Shona Robison, who is leading the Scottish Government’s response to the inquiry, is due to make a statement in Parliament this week on the evidence that has been handed over.
Later on Monday, a Scottish Government spokesman said messages created in order to conduct government business should be uploaded to the system of record (eRDM) which then makes conversations available to the Scottish Government.
The spokesman said: “The Scottish Government’s records management policy makes clear that records shall be retained as long as they are required to support the Scottish Government in its business requirements and legal obligations.
“Records are defined as recorded information in any form which is created or received in the conduct of government business and which can provide evidence of activities, transactions and decisions made for, or on behalf of, the organisation.
“In line with this policy, guidance on mobile messaging requires that information should be saved to our system of record, which is eRDM. That means that the information is available to the organisation, not just the people involved in any particular conversation.
“We advise that staff should regularly review, record information as required and then delete conversations within one month. This is primarily to promote the proper capture of information, but also to reduce the risk of loss of data.”