All of Nicola Sturgeon’s WhatsApp messages sent and received during the pandemic have been deleted, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.
The former first minister has previously said she never used informal messaging to make decisions during the pandemic, but has been criticised for what opposition politicians consider an attempt to hide exchanges with key ministers and advisers.
It had been reported Ms Sturgeon’s messages from the time of the pandemic had been deleted, but Jamie Dawson KC – the counsel to the inquiry – said a table submitted by the Scottish Government confirmed that was the case.
“In the summary table that we see here, we can see that under the box ‘Nicola Sturgeon’ it says that ‘messages were not retained, they were deleted in routine tidying up of inboxes or changes of phones, unable to retrieve messages’,” Mr Dawson said.
“What that tends to suggest is that at the time a request was made, Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister of Scotland, had retained no messages whatsoever in connection with her management of the pandemic.”
He went on to ask Lesley Fraser, the director-general corporate at the Scottish Government, if that was correct.
“That’s what that indicates to me,” she replied.
When the inquiry asked for messages retained by the Scottish Government, Mr Dawson said: “You provided us with none,” to which Ms Fraser said: “Correct.”
He went on to ask if the inquiry had “no access” to Ms Sturgeon’s messages in connection with the pandemic.
Ms Fraser said: “Ms Sturgeon will be able to explain this much better.
“Ms Sturgeon would have worked with her private office in order to ensure that her views and instructions were clearly understood and they may well have been informed by some of the exchanges she had with her chief of staff or with other ministers, but she would have relayed that to her private office and that would be then the instruction that went from private office and that would be retained.”
Asked if she is sure that is what would have happened, Ms Fraser said that course of action is “how Government works”, adding it is a “necessity” for information to be recorded, but she was unable to be absolutely sure.
In 2021, during one of the regular Covid-19 briefings she held, Ms Sturgeon gave an assurance that correspondence – including messages – would be handed to any future inquiry.
A spokeswoman for Ms Sturgeon said: “In the interests of everyone who has been impacted by the Covid pandemic, Nicola is committed to full transparency to both the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries.
“Any messages she had, she handled and dealt with in line with the Scottish Government’s policies.
“Nicola has provided a number of written statements to the UK inquiry – totalling hundreds of pages – and welcomes the opportunity to give oral evidence to the inquiry again this month when she will answer all questions put to her.”
The former first minister will give evidence to the inquiry in the coming weeks.
Ms Fraser went on to reject assertions by Mr Dawson that the Scottish Government’s records policy was “not fit for purpose”, but she did accept there had been “hurt and frustration” caused due to messages not being handed to the inquiry.
In a later evidence session with Ken Thomson, the former director-general for strategy and external affairs at the Scottish Government, the inquiry saw a message from national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch, which suggested he deleted WhatsApp messages every day.
In the message exchange, Mr Thomson said he felt “moved to remind you at this point that this channel is FOI-recoverable”, to which Prof Leitch – after another member of the group recommended they “clear the chat” – said: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”
Mr Dawson asked Mr Thomson if there was a “culture” of senior figures in the Scottish Government deleting messages “in order to defeat the very purposes for which the policies are set up”.
The former senior civil servant replied: “I need to give you a longer answer to this question, but the short answer is no.”
Later, Mr Thomson was asked whether a note he wrote suggested the Government’s priority shifted from tackling Covid to independence.
The inquiry was shown a document written by Mr Thomson on May 25 2021, detailing a conversation between him and the then-deputy first minister John Swinney.
The document, Mr Dawson said, had “indy is back” written on the page.
The lawyer asked: “Does that tend to suggest that in the course of that conversation, the deputy first minister (John Swinney) has indicated the policy priority is now to pursue independence again?”
Mr Thomson then said the document was not a record of conversation with Mr Swinney, and was a personal note for himself only.
Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett interjected, saying: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but the question really is a simple one.
“You’ve written down what seems to be ‘indy is back’, which we assume means independence is back on the agenda.
“Presumably you got that impression from the minister, which is the point I think Mr Dawson KC is asking.”
Mr Thomson said: “I can’t recall that being part of the discussion with the deputy first minister.”
Commenting afterwards on the evidence regarding Ms Sturgeon, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross claimed the actions may have been illegal and amounted to an attempt to hide information from the public.
“Nicola Sturgeon’s reputation, which has been tarnished by a series of scandals in the last year, now lies in tatters,” he said.
“Secrecy and evasion were the hallmarks of her government – and this shameful cover-up, which amounts to a digital torching of vital evidence, is the most scandalous example of it.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader Dame Jackie Baillie said the news was “nothing short of horrifying” and a “shocking betrayal”.
She added: “Despite giving assurances to keep all correspondence, Nicola Sturgeon has completely broken her promise to the people of Scotland.”