Published by BBC NEWS - 30th October 2023
  • Published
Humza YousafImage source, Getty Images

Humza Yousaf has denied deleting Whatsapp messages relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Scottish government has been accused of failing to hand over data to the UK Covid Inquiry.

Senior government figures during the pandemic, including former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, have been accused of wiping messages or using an auto-delete function.

Mr Yousaf said it was “certainly not true” that he had removed messages.

He said his government would “fully” comply with both the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries.

“I have kept and retained all of the WhatsApp messages and I am more than happy to hand them over to the Covid inquiry,” the first minister told BBC Scotland News.

“Government business isn’t routinely done over WhatsApp and of course where any decisions were made they were appropriately recorded within our message management system.

“If the Covid inquiry wants more information, needs more information, then I expect every minister, past and present, every government official or clinical adviser to comply.”

Mr Yousaf – who served as health secretary from May 2021 before becoming first minister in March 2023 – told BBC Scotland News that government figures were not told to delete messages to prevent potential embarrassment for the administration.

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.

He added that the government, which he said had provided about 13,000 documents to the inquiries, had recently asked the UK Covid Inquiry for a legal order to release messages to “make sure we are operating within the bounds of the law”.

Nicola Sturgeon

Image source, PA Media

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.

It has been reported by the Sunday Mail that the former first minister manually deleted messages relating to the pandemic.

Her spokesperson said she was co-operating with both the Scottish and UK inquiries.

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 “any material that is asked for – WhatsApp messages, emails, Signal messages, Telegram messages or whatever – will absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over to them in full”.

Deletion fears

Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the UK inquiry, said 70 Scottish government figures were asked for their WhatsApp messages, but “very few appear to have been retained”.

He said this was “surprising” and that the “process of recovery had gone more slowly than expected”.

There were at least 137 WhatsApp groups being used across the Scottish government and its agencies during Covid.

The Scottish government told the inquiry in recent weeks that it needed a formal order under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 to disclose all of the information due to data privacy concerns.

Mr Yousaf said this had not yet been received.

On Thursday, The Times reported that national clinical director Jason Leitch deleted messages every day during the pandemic.

The Scottish Daily Mail also reported that chief medical officer Prof Sir Gregor Smith used an auto-delete function on Whatsapp messages during the crisis. WhatsApp announced it was introducing that function in November 2020, eight months after the pandemic was declared.

Prof Leitch and Prof Smith have been asked to comment.

WhatsApp logo on phone

Image source, Getty Images

Green minister Lorna Slater, who was appointed in August 2021, told BBC Scotland’s Sunday Show she did not use Whatsapp for government business and did not have a government-issue phone.

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison is expected to make a statement on the issue in the Scottish Parliament, possibly as early as Tuesday.

Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie accused Mr Yousaf of misleading parliament over the electronic messages and said he should give the statement to MSPs since he served as health secretary during the crisis.

“I find this quite insulting and disrespectful to the bereaved families who lost loved ones during the pandemic because they were promised answers, they were promised full co-operation and that simply hasn’t happened,” she told BBC Scotland News.

‘Serious questions’

Ms Baillie said she was “astonished” the Scottish government had only recently requested an order to provide data to the UK inquiry.

“The Scottish government already have a document retention policy that should have been in operation,” she said.

“They shouldn’t have been deleting those messages, whether it’s on auto-delete or manual, because of that policy.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said there were “serious questions” about when and why any messages may have been deleted by senior government figures.

He urged Ms Sturgeon to make a personal statement to parliament about her personal communications and said the situation was affecting bereaved families.

“It’s completely unacceptable that they were promised full openness and transparency from Nicola Sturgeon, from SNP ministers, from the current first minister and that is not happening and that is why we are already seeing families that feel they are losing faith with the inquiries even at this early stage,” he told BBC Scotland News.

Mr Ross, who was a UK government minister until May 2020, said he retained all of his WhatsApp messages from during the pandemic.

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