SNP forced to hand over 14,000 Covid messages after legal threat

Humiliated: SNP forced to hand over 14,000 Covid messages after legal threat

  • Deputy First Minister apologises for WhatsApp shambles as Sturgeon squirms 

Humza Yousaf’s government performed a humiliating U-turn yesterday after it was forced to hand over thousands of private messages to the UK Covid-19 public inquiry.

In a spectacular climbdown, the SNP Government agreed to send 14,000 messages from ministers, officials and advisers in the coming days.

It comes after lawyers for the inquiry threatened legal action against any individual who did not comply with a ‘section 21’ notice demanding the release of messages.

But Nicola Sturgeon last night repeatedly refused to reveal if she had deleted WhatsApp messages sent during the pandemic as she was grilled by journalists at Holyrood.

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison – who issued an apology to grieving families for any ‘distress’ caused by the issue – also refused to say how many messages had been deleted, who had deleted them and if any effort had been made to retrieve them.

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon is grilled by reporters outside the debating chamber at the Scottish Parliament over her WhatsApp messages 

Critics last night raised fears of a potential ‘cover-up’ and insisted the whole affair was surrounded by the ‘stench of secrecy’.

It comes as the UK Covid-19 inquiry yesterday heard explosive evidence about messages sent during the pandemic. 

However, no such cache of communications has been forthcoming from the Scottish Government despite repeated calls for transparency.

Yesterday, though, SNP ministers agreed to hand over the messages, mainly from Whats-App, after being served with the section 21 notice by Lady Hallett’s London-based inquiry.

The legally-binding order makes it a criminal offence to withhold the messages, punishable by a £1,000 fine or up to 51 weeks in jail.

Speaking after the Holyrood statement, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross highlighted that Ms Sturgeon had previously promised in August 2021 that ‘nothing would be off-limits’ to the inquiry. He said: ‘But now the stench of secrecy from this Government is overpowering.

‘Because at the weekend it was revealed Nicola Sturgeon had manually deleted messages, and it has also been revealed that Scotland’s most senior clinician, Jason Leitch, also deleted WhatsApp messages on a daily basis.’

He added: ‘The Deputy First Minister has said the SNP Government will now provide 14,000 WhatsApp messages – almost a year after they were originally asked for.

‘Yet she refused to say whether this includes all messages from Nicola Sturgeon, Jason Leitch and others that were deleted. We need to know if these messages have been recovered. If they haven’t, it’s an indefensible cover-up.’

Announcing the move yesterday, Ms Robison apologised to bereaved families, who had reacted with fury last week after the UK inquiry confirmed that the Scottish Government had not handed over a single WhatsApp message.

She said the Scottish Government received the section 21 notice on Monday and will ‘fully comply’ by sharing all messages in full and unredacted by November 6. Ms Robison said: ‘In addition to the hundreds of messages already handed over to the UK Inquiry, this notice will allow us to share over 14,000, mainly WhatsApp, messages from various groups and individuals over the period of the pandemic.

‘I can confirm that messages from ministers and former ministers are included.’

Ms Robison said that only messages about government business were normally transcribed and stored, meaning many of the group chats and conversations may never be retrieved.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the ‘stench of secrecy’ from the Scottish Government is ‘overpowering’

She repeatedly declined to answer how many messages from Ms Sturgeon and other senior figures and officials had already been deleted.

Speaking to journalists after the statement, Ms Sturgeon refused four times to deny the allegation that she deleted her messages.

The former First Minister said: ‘I have nothing to hide. I am committed to full transparency to this inquiry and the Scottish inquiry.’

Asked directly if she had deleted WhatsApp or text messages, she replied: ‘I am cooperating fully and constructively with the inquiry.

‘I have just submitted my third written statement to the UK inquiry that runs to some 200 pages, I’ve been asked further questions by the inquiry, which I’m in the process of answering.

‘As the Deputy First Minister has just said in the chamber, the requests and the responses at this stage are confidential until the inquiry decides otherwise so I cannot and will not go into the detail of those responses right now.’

Asked again, Ms Sturgeon said: ‘Any messages I had were dealt with in line with the policies set out by the Deputy First Minister.’ She continued: ‘I did not manage the Covid response by WhatsApp.

‘I was not a member of any WhatsApp groups, I managed the Covid response from my office in St Andrew’s house.

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison issued an apology to grieving families of Covid victims for any ‘distress’ caused by the WhatsApp messages furore

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie claimed messages had been ‘destroyed on an industrial scale’

‘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. I am satisfied I handled information in line with the policies that you’ve heard.’

Ms Robison said she expected ‘every minister past and present, and every official and clinical adviser, to comply’ with the section 21 notice – but said messages about ‘inconsequential or personal matters’ did not need to be retained.

She also insisted there was never a requirement for messages to be auto deleted ‘without ensuring relevant information is captured and saved appropriately first’.

Mr Ross had asked if all messages deleted by Ms Sturgeon and Mr Leitch would be provided, but Ms Robison said she could not say who messages were from or outline their content as it would breach the inquiry rules. Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie claimed messages had been ‘destroyed on an industrial scale’. 

She said: ‘A public inquiry was talked about in May 2020. Why did ministers not retain evidence from then? It is inconceivable a former first minister would not understand the importance of that evidence.’

Addressing Ms Sturgeon’s latest comments, Ms Baillie said: ‘This was a masterclass in dodging questions. 

‘In one breath Nicola Sturgeon promised transparency and in the other refused to come clean on whether she has been deleting messages.

‘If the former first minister has nothing to hide, she will supply a full record of her WhatsApps.’

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