Scottish Government to provide Covid Inquiry 14,000 WhatsApps – but still faces claims of ‘torching evidence’

Although senior ministers have pledged to hand over thousands of messages to the public inquiry, controversy persists over claims many more may have been deleted as a matter of course

The Scottish Government has pledged to hand over more than 14,000 messages to the UK Covid Inquiry.

But critics have accused  of “building a bonfire to torch evidence” amid reports ministers and senior officials routinely deleted many others during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The inquiry has served a Section 21 notice legal order to enable the government to provide the messages. The Scottish Government has indicated that the order was required because a number of messages included information of a personal nature. Today marks the deadline for complying with the notice.

Deputy first minister of Scotland Shona Robison said that the messages were “mostly concerning routine coordination of work and meetings by officials.

“I can confirm that messages from ministers and former ministers are included,” 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 cooperate with both [the UK and Scottish] inquiries and will share any additional messages, should more become available or further material be requested.”

Robison also apologised to the families of those bereaved during the pandemic for “any lack of clarity” about information being provided to the inquiry.

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It has been reported that 70 officials within the Scottish Government – including former first minister Nicola Sturgeon – have failed to hand over material because it was not retained. He successor Humza Yousaf has denied deleting WhatsApp messages sent during the pandemic, but has said that the Scottish Government policy at the time was otherwise to “routinely delete” messages.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has accused the Scottish Government of “building a bonfire to torch evidence” and that, by deleting messages, individuals may have broken the law.

The Tory chief clashed in Holyrood with SNP first minister Humza Yousaf, following days of reports that ministers and officials had made use of an auto-delete function which meant some material had not been retained and could therefore not be passed to the Covid inquiries.

Ross said: “Destroying or withholding evidence from an inquiry is illegal. So does Humza Yousaf accept that if Nicola Sturgeon or any government minister has destroyed WhatsApp messages relevant to the inquiry, they would be breaking the law? We don’t know what the truth is because messages have been deleted.”

And Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar urged the FM to “take personal responsibility” for ensuring all messages from ministers, former ministers and officials are provided to the inquiry, not just his own.

He added: “To abdicate responsibility I think is, frankly, shameful.”

Yousaf said thousands of messages were being given to the inquiry by the government, in addition to his own “unredacted” WhatsApps.

He said: “I can give an unequivocal guarantee to those families who have been bereaved by Covid taht the messages that we have retained will absolutely be handed over and handed over in full.”

He added: “We certainly do not have anything to fear from the truth.”

Versions of this story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood

Louise Wilson

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