SNP ministers must “come clean” over any deleted pandemic-related messages (updated)

By Bill Heaney 

SNP ministers must urgently “come clean” over whether they have deleted any messages relevant to the Covid Inquiry, the Scottish Conservatives have demanded.

The call from the party’s chief whip Alexander Burnett comes after Douglas Ross challenged Humza Yousaf at First Minister’s Questions over the SNP Government’s failures to hand over any messages to the UK pandemic inquiry.

Lead Counsel on the Covid inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC, left,  said: “Subject to one exception to which I will revert, at present, the Scottish Government has provided the inquiry with no WhatsApp or other informal messaging material, either in its own possession, or in the possession of the individuals whose individual rule 9 requests are being handled by the Scottish Government.”

The Times newspaper has also reported that national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch deleted his WhatsApp messages every day during the pandemic.

Alexander Burnett says that this revelation and Humza Yousaf’s “pitifully weak” excuses to Douglas Ross for not providing all relevant messages to the inquiry chaired by High Court judge Lord Brailsford – as he promised to do in the Scottish Parliament in June – display a “rotten culture of secrecy within the Scottish Government”.

He says a lack of answers mean that all Scottish Government ministers and relevant senior officials should be “fully transparent” as to whether messages on WhatsApp – or any other messaging platform – have been deleted.

The chief whip says that should include Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Jeane Freeman, all pictured above,  who were at the forefront of the Scottish Government’s response to the pandemic.

He has also demanded an urgent ministerial statement from the SNP Government on the subject in Holyrood next week, saying bereaved families deserve to know if and why messages have been deleted, given that would hinder the work of the inquiry. 

Scottish Conservative chief whip Alexander Burnett MSP, left, said: “There is a rotten culture of secrecy within the Scottish Government. The revelation that they have not handed over any messages to the Covid Inquiry will only make grieving families and the wider public wonder what the SNP have to hide.

“Humza Yousaf’s responses were pitifully weak when Douglas Ross challenged him in Parliament as to why he has refused to hand over these messages.

“Since then, we have heard allegations that Jason Leitch – arguably Scotland’s most well-known civil servant – was apparently deleting messages every day on WhatsApp during the pandemic.

“That comes across as completely reckless and would potentially even break the law. These latest revelations mean SNP ministers must come clean and be fully transparent on whether the actions reportedly taken by Jason Leitch were replicated by them.

“That must include Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Jeane Freeman who fronted up the Scottish Government’s Covid response as well as the current First Minister and his team of ministers.

“The SNP cannot try to run away from this issue, which is why I have demanded a ministerial statement on the matter at the earliest opportunity in Parliament. There are grieving families at the heart of this, who deserve to know if and why crucial messages were deleted, because that would undoubtedly hinder the work of the inquiry.

“They must agree to deliver this statement and Humza Yousaf must guarantee to honour his previous commitment to hand over any messages to the Covid inquiry – and hand them over in full.”

Meanwhile, today (Monday) Humza Yousaf has been urged to answer questions in parliament tomorrow on the escalating Covid deleted WhatsApps scandal, rather than “hide behind his deputy”.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has today submitted a Topical Question to the Presiding Officer demanding that the First Minister explain the Scottish Government’s policy on mobile phone message retention.

He has also written to Nicola Sturgeon requesting a personal statement in parliament from the ex-First Minister following weekend reports that she deleted WhatsApp messages – despite her vow to a journalist at a press conference in August 2021 that these would be disclosed to the inquiry.

Douglas Ross said a parliamentary statement from Deputy First Minister Shona Robison “wouldn’t cut it” and that Humza Yousaf must submit himself and the SNP Government to proper scrutiny.

He added: “It’s unacceptable for the First Minister to hide behind his deputy in the form of a carefully-worded ministerial statement. That won’t cut it.

“Humza Yousaf has serious questions to answer. He was a senior figure in Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet at the time of the pandemic so he must know what her government’s policy was on retaining messages.

Douglas Ross, Shona Robison and First Minister Humza Yousaf.

“He has a duty to explain what that was – which is why I have submitted a Topical Question to the Presiding Officer today.

“This scandal has grown by the day since I raised it at FMQs on Thursday in the wake of the revelation that morning at the UK Covid Inquiry that SNP ministers had failed to submit messages.

“Since then, we’ve had media reports that the national clinical director Jason Leitch and Nicola Sturgeon deleted WhatsApp messages.

“If true, this is not only unacceptable to bereaved families – who deserve answers on behalf of their loved ones – but potentially illegal.

“That’s why I have written to Nicola Sturgeon requesting she make a personal statement responding to these extremely serious allegations.

“As someone whose reputation is growing more and more tarnished by the day, I trust she will want to clear this matter up as soon as possible.”

LATE NEWS: Aamer Anwar, the lawyer representing Scottish Covid Bereaved families has said the WhatsApp messages deleted by Nicola Sturgeon and other Scottish Government figures could be recovered. Aamer Anwar said there was a precedent set where material was retrieved in criminal cases.

The UK Covid Inquiry requested copies of the messages sent by 70 people in 137 WhatsApp groups but it was revealed last week that only one person had complied with the order. It has since emerged the former First Minister and others including National Clinical Director Jason Leitch had been routinely deleting their WhatsApps.

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