Scotland’s First Minister has been urged to order an investigation into statements he made about deleted WhatsApp messages.
This week the UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard Humza Yousaf had deleted WhatsApp messages in line with guidance issued by the Scottish Government, although these were later recovered from another device.
Following reports last year he had erased the messages, the First Minister told the PA news agency: “I don’t know why there’s been press reports suggesting I’ve deleted my WhatsApp messages – that’s not true.”
Appearing before the inquiry this week, the First Minister was shown a table provided by the Scottish Government, which said he “deleted all messages after a month for cybersecurity purposes as per their understanding of the Scottish Government mobile messaging apps usage and policy”.
Asked if that was an accurate representation of the First Minister’s position, he replied: “Yes.”
Following his evidence, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has called for Mr Yousaf to refer himself to the independent adviser on the ministerial code.
Mr Ross accused the First Minister of a “blatant attempt to mislead the public”, adding: “Due to your flagrantly deceitful statement made to the press in late October, which we now know to be false following the inquiry’s hearing, I am urging you to refer this matter to the independent adviser on the ministerial code to investigate whether your statement contradicted that code.
“If you want to restore any shred of integrity you have left, you should make such a referral as a matter of urgency.”
The ministerial code is strict about the accuracy of information given to parliament, with anyone found to have “knowingly” misled Holyrood expected to resign, but it is less explicit about dealing with journalists.
Pressure has been ramping up on the Government over its handling of informal messages during the pandemic, with the inquiry hearing from two of the country’s top clinicians – national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch and chief medical officer Professor Sir Gregor Smith – openly talking about deleting messages in exchanges with colleagues.
Earlier in the inquiry’s probe of the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic, it heard of so-called “gold command” meetings chaired by Nicola Sturgeon and attended by senior cabinet ministers and officials.
The meetings were separate from the usual cabinet structure and lead counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC said “it appears that no minutes of the meetings of this group were kept”.
Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, who also wrote to the First Minister, pressed him on referring the lack of minutes of such meetings to the independent adviser.
During his evidence, the First Minister said the meetings “should have been minuted” and if they had not it would not have been “usual protocol”.
Mr Cole-Hamilton wrote: “I am concerned, therefore, that the absence of any minutes for the meetings that took place between the former first minister, the deputy first minister, other cabinet secretaries and senior policy advisers constitutes a breach of the code.
“The content of these meetings could have included critical discussions and insights that shaped the decisions on which lives and livelihoods depended.
“They would have been of critical interest to the families fighting for the answers and the understanding they deserve, but which they may now have been denied.
“To that end, I urge you to contact the independent adviser on the Scottish ministerial code as soon as possible to formally launch an investigation into this matter.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government is committed to responding to both the UK and Scottish Covid-19 inquiries, as learning lessons from the pandemic is vital to prepare for the future.
“It would be inappropriate to comment on the detail of evidence being considered by the UK Covid inquiry while hearings are ongoing.”