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WhatsApp row: Scottish Government will hand over 14,000 messages to Covid inquiry

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison | Alamy

WhatsApp row: Scottish Government will hand over 14,000 messages to Covid inquiry

Over 14,000 WhatsApp messages will be handed over to the UK Covid Inquiry by the Scottish Government, the deputy first minister has confirmed.

Shona Robison said the inquiry had served a legal order to enable the government to provide the messages.

This order, known as a Section 21 notice, was required because a number of messages included information of a personal nature, Robison said.

The Scottish Government must comply with the request by 6 November.

Robison said: “This notice will allow us to share over 14,000, mainly WhatsApp, messages from various groups and individuals over the period of the pandemic, mostly concerning routine coordination of work and meetings by officials. I can confirm that messages from ministers and former ministers are included.

“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 inquiries and will share any additional messages, should more become available or further material be requested.”

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

The statement was made in response to accusations that the Scottish Government is withholding vital information from the Covid inquiry.

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.

First Minister Humza Yousaf has denied deleting WhatsApp messages sent during the pandemic, insisting yesterday he would supply both the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries with the information.

But he also said it was Scottish Government policy at the time to “routinely delete” messages.

Robison added that it was not within the “culture” of the Scottish Government to make decisions via WhatsApp messages, which is why the information had not initially been provided to the inquiry.

She said initial requests were for material relating to decision-making, and the request for all WhatsApp messages was made recently.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said there was a “stench of secrecy” around the process, accusing the government of an “indefensible cover-up”.

And Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said the government was treating bereaved families with “disrespect”.

The UK Government has similarly been facing questions over deleted WhatsApp messages.

The UK Covid inquiry, which began hearing evidence in August, heard yesterday that a senior civil servant had turned on a “disappearing message function” on the WhatsApp group called “PM Updates” on 15 April 2021 – only a month before it was announced that a Covid Inquiry was going to take place.

Martin Reynolds, who was the principal private secretary to the prime minister during much of the pandemic response, said he could not recall the specific reason why he had turned on that function.

“I can speculate… This WhatsApp group was very different to any other group because it was funnelling information from the prime minister. That flow of information, of updating him on developments, was recorded properly on our systems,” he added.

Reynolds claimed that most of the information on this group was recorded separately in an informal manner via email, and that the group were merely a way to "funnel" information to Johnson in a succinct way.

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