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by Kirsteen Paterson
31 January 2024
Covid inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon apologises for WhatsApp answer to journalist

Nicola Sturgeon arrives at the inquiry | Alamy

Covid inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon apologises for WhatsApp answer to journalist

Nicola Sturgeon has apologised for a pandemic press conference pledge to hand over all Covid-related WhatsApp messages for a public inquiry.

In an answer to a Channel 4 News journalist, Sturgeon agreed that all pandemic communications would be disclosed to any future public inquiry, saying "nothing will be off limits" – including "emails, WhatsApps [and] private emails".

She said: "Even if I wasn't prepared to give that assurance, which for the avoidance of doubt, I am, then I wouldn't have the ability [to do otherwise]. This will be a judge-led public inquiry."

Appearing before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Edinburgh on Wednesday, Sturgeon agreed that she had already manually deleted WhatsApp exchanges when that answer was given.

But the former first minister said she was following guidance given to her in 2007 and all "germane" information had been passed over for official government records. 

She said she had been "trying to answer the substance" of the question posed at the press conference, adding: "I apologise if that answer was not as clear."

On Tuesday, former finance secretary Kate Forbes, who retained her WhatsApp messages, told the inquiry she was "not aware" of a Scottish Government policy on the deletion of informal messaging until 2022, when she was told it applied to her private office.

Sturgeon said it was not her "style" or "practice" to use WhatsApp or other informal messaging channels and that she had deleted these from her devices.

She said she had not seen a "do not destroy" instruction from a senior civil servant on pandemic messaging.

And she said that while it wasn't her "style" to use it, WhatsApp chats had become "too common" in government and led to messages that could be "misinterpreted" with hindsight.

Sturgeon pointed to a reply she gave to national clinical director Jason Leitch on health measures, which instructed him that "if you want to talk about matters like this come and see me properly, this is not the place to do it".

And she said an exchange with health expert Devi Sridhar had initially not been found in her Twitter direct messages because she had not thought to look there.

Sturgeon said: "I operated from 2007 based on advice, the policy that messages, business relating to government should not be kept on a phone that could be lost or stolen, insecure in that way, but properly recorded through the system."

She said: "I want to give the inquiry a personal assurance that I am certain that the inquiry has at its disposal anything and everything germane to my decision-making during the process and the period of the pandemic, and the factors underpinning those decisions. 

"That has always been important to me and it remains important to me, but more importantly it is essential to the scrutiny of the decisions.

"I will carry the impact of these decisions with me forever and I want to make sure that those who come after me in politics will have the benefit of the learning of the things that my government did right and the things that my government, that were not right or with hindsight we wish that we had done differently.

"These decisions were of a magnitude beyond what I had ever experienced, and that is true of decision-makers everywhere, and the impact of them I think about literally every day.

"I want this inquiry and the Scottish inquiry to scrutinise those decisions so that we can learn and future governments can learn lessons from them."

Extensive messages between Leitch and current first minister Humza Yousaf, who was health secretary during the pandemic, have caused embarrassment for the latter after he was found to have called a Labour MSP an "arsehole" and talked about taking "a bullet at cabinet".

Responding to inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson KC, Sturgeon suggested their phrases would not have been used in more formal means of communication.

She said: "I would have had no knowledge of and had no sight of before seeing them in the course of this inquiry. If you're asking me, Mr Dawson, did I not know that anybody in the Scottish Government was using WhatsApp, of course that's not the case. 

"WhatsApp had become in my view probably too common a means of communication but I think the exchanges you're talking about, certainly from what I had seen, don't suggest that government decisions were being taken through WhatsApp.

"One of the reasons I don't believe that WhatsApp, for example, should be used for government communications and decision-making is that when I make a public statement, or when I made public statements as first minister in this context, I would think very, very carefully about the words I used to try to minimise as far as is ever possible the scope for what I was saying to be misinterpreted.

"When people send messages on WhatsApp, including me, you don't think that deeply about how you're phrasing things and therefore messages, when they're looked back at later on, can be open to different interpretations because people haven't really thought about the words they're using or the phraseology they're using. 

"That would certainly be true of some of the messages the inquiry has been looking at."

The inquiry continues.

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