COVID INQUIRY: Actions of SNP Government nothing short of shameful (updated)

Loggerheads over Covid Inquiry – Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar and Humza Yousaf.

By Bill Heaney

Both the Labour leader Anas Sarwar and his Conservative opposite number Douglas Ross wiped the Holyrood floor with SNP leader Humza Yousaf at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament today.

The SNP Government was accused of treating grieving families with “contempt” after it emerged that they had a policy of deleting WhatsApp messages during the Covid pandemic.

Douglas Ross said those who lost loved ones were incensed at reports that Nicola Sturgeon had destroyed messages relevant to the Covid Inquiry, which is chaired by Lord Brailsford.

Margaret Waterton, who lost her mother and husband to the virus, described the revelation that the Scottish Government withheld evidence as “frankly shameful”.

Jane Morrison, a member of Scottish Covid Bereaved, who lost her wife in the pandemic, said: “If someone deliberately deleted stuff to avoid us getting to the truth, then morally and ethically, as well as legally, it’s totally in the wrong.”

The SNP Government were told by the Scottish Covid Inquiry “to make sure that no material of potential relevance to the Inquiry is destroyed, deleted or disposed of.

“Humza Yousaf also previously told the Scottish Parliament: “Any material that is asked for… will absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over to them in full,” Mr Ross added amid uproar across the chamber.

The First Minister refused to say whether he agreed that his predecessor would have broken the law if she had deleted messages relevant to the inquiry, but he claimed that the Scottish Government was committed to accountability and transparency. 

Douglas Ross  added: “In June 2021, the Scottish Government was told to retain messages relevant to the handling of the Covid pandemic.

“But five months later, the SNP introduced a policy to destroy WhatsApp messages.

“It’s the digital equivalent of building a bonfire in the yard to torch the evidence.

“It is not for politicians to judge what is relevant, to pick and choose which messages are handed over to an inquiry.

“The SNP should never have brought in a policy to delete messages after they had been told to keep them.

“The SNP’s auto-delete policy means they can cherry-pick which information the UK Covid Inquiry sees.

“Crucial discussions may have been destroyed by their auto-delete policy. Any uncomfortable information may be lost, never to see the light of day.

“This secretive approach treats the Covid Inquiry and grieving families with contempt.

“The SNP Government has broken a promise to grieving families by failing to be transparent.

“Humza Yousaf must accept that Nicola Sturgeon or any government minister would be breaking the law if they have destroyed WhatsApp messages relevant to the inquiry.”

Humza Yousaf defended Nicola Sturgeon and pointed out that she held “250” daily briefings during the Covid pandemic.

However, Ms Sturgeon has still refused to say whether she deleted WhatsApp messages, despite being asked to repeatedly.

Douglas Ross described this defence as “unbelievable” as he asked the First Minister whether she or her officials, would face criminal charges if they are found to have wiped their evidence.

He pointed out that the policy for deleting social media messages came in after it was announced Covid Inquiries would be held.

Mr Yousaf claimed that the Scottish Government did not “hide from the truth.” 

Mr Ross called the First Minister’s position “all over the place.”

He added: “In June 2021, the Scottish Government was told to retain messages relevant to their handling of the Covid pandemic. But five months later, the SNP introduced a policy to destroy WhatsApp messages.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “The actions of this SNP Government have been nothing short of shameful.

“In June, I asked the First Minister directly, and I quote:

“Will [he] confirm that all ministers and officials past and present have complied with the do not destroy instruction? Will he give a guarantee that all requested emails, text and whatsapp messages will be handed over in full to the inquiry.”

“He gave a direct answer. He said ‘Yes they will’.

“No equivocation. No caveats. No grey areas.

“But we now know that messages have been deleted.

“The First Minister has lost control of his government.

“He doesn’t know how many ministers or officials have complied with the do not destroy notice.  He doesn’t know how many have deleted messages.

“And he claims that the Government’s response to the inquiry is for individuals rather than his government.

“The First Minister promised this chamber he would ensure all material was handed to the inquiry in full.

“This week we have seen how important these messages are.

“Why does Humza Yousaf believe his government should be held to a lower standard than the Tories at Westminster?

“What is he doing to identify those who did not comply with the do not destroy notices?

“And what action is he taking against those who failed to comply?

“Or should we conclude that his word means nothing?” 

When Dame Jackie Baillie, the Dumbarton MSP, suggested that Whatsapp messages had been “destroyed” by the SNP, Mr Yousaf replied: “I  can hear Jackie Baillie shouting, “Destroyed!”, but the 14,000 messages have not been destroyed.
“We are handing them over, and they include ministers past and present. We do not know which ministers—again, for confidentiality purposes—but we know that they include ministers past and present.

“Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross have every right to ask about messages being handed over. I give an unequivocal guarantee to those families who have been bereaved by Covid that the messages that we have retained will absolutely be handed over—and handed over in full.

“As First Minister and the head of the Government, when submitting my statement, I will be handing over my messages in full and un-redacted.”

Excerpts from the UK Covid inquiry’s preliminary hearing include a General Lack of Cooperation with the Inquiry

  • “The responses to these requests [to SG directorates] were received and analysed within the Inquiry. They were found generally to be of use in setting out responsibilities and structures, though were not as detailed as regards  key decisions actually made by the Scottish Government.”
  • “The process of recovery has gone more slowly than expected, especially with the Scottish Government. This has no doubt, to an extent, been due to the considerable administrative burden which has been placed on the Scottish Government and its legal department by not only this Inquiry but also the Scottish Inquiry. However, there have been numerous misunderstandings on the Scottish Government’s part about what the Inquiry considers to have been perfectly clear documentary requests. These have undoubtedly caused delays.”

On WhatsApps and Informal Communications

  • “As a result of the potential significance of informal messaging in the way that government business was conducted at Westminster and as urged by our core participants, we requested as part of our corporate request to the Scottish Government and other significant Scottish public bodies involved in the Covid-19 response, including Public Health Scotland, that they provide us with details about the usage of informal messages, including but not limited to WhatsApps, in the management of the pandemic in Scotland, but also to provide copies of the messages themselves.”
  • “No clear or comprehensive response emerged in the corporate statements from the Scottish Government. No messages were provided.”

Scottish Government responding for Individuals

  • “As I have already set out, extensive individual Rule 9 requests were also compiled for individuals who worked within the Scottish Government operation. The responses to these requests have been administered by the Scottish Government through its Covid Inquiry response team.”

Top of page picture: Lord Brailsford, who is chairing the Scottish Covid Inquiry.

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