Missing in action: WhatsApps dominate Covid Inquiry hearings in Scotland

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s scathing comments about Boris Johnson surface despite failure to save her own messages
Jason Leitch, who quipped that deleting WhatsApps was a “pre-bed ritual”, arriving at the Covid Inquiry hearing in Edinburgh. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

26 Jan 2024


After a frenetic few weeks when many senior UK government figures were grilled by the Covid Inquiry, some in SW1 might be feeling a strong sense of schadenfreude now hearings have relocated to Edinburgh to probe the Scottish Government’s pandemic record.

The availability – or not – of key individuals’ WhatsApp messages has already become a core theme, in a way Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson would keenly understand.

Last week, it emerged that Scotland’s national clinical director, Prof Jason Leitch, had suggested in a group chat that deleting WhatsApp messages was a “pre-bed ritual”.

This week, Leitch insisted he had been making a “slightly flippant” comment in response to a message from Ken Thomson, the Scottish Government's former director general of strategy and affairs. Thompson had cautioned that the chat could be revealed through a Freedom of Information request.

Leitch told the inquiry that he deleted “informal messaging” related to work that had been “managed and dealt with”. But he added that he had only deleted WhatsApp messages in accordance with Scottish Government retention policies, with “any advice, or any decisions or anything that should be in the corporate record" being “placed in that corporate record by email”.

There is evidence to support this. The inquiry was shown November 2021 messages between Leitch and current first minister Humza Yousaf, who was health minister at the time.

Yousaf asked Leitch for advice on whether he needed to keep his face mask on if he was talking to people at an event.

Leitch responded: "Officially yes. But literally no one does. Have a drink in your hands at all times. Then you're exempt. So if someone comes and you stand, lift your drink.”

Scotland’s former first minister Nicola Sturgeon has yet to provide any of her messages to the inquiry ahead of an expected appearance in person next week.

The situation seems unlikely to change. Earlier this month, the inquiry was told that the Scottish Government had not been able to supply the former first minister’s messages from its corporate record.

Lesley Fraser, the Scottish Government’s corporate DG, told the inquiry it appeared that Sturgeon had already deleted messages related to her management of the pandemic by the time a request to provide them was made.

Boris Johnson is a “fucking clown”

But the situation hasn’t stopped some candid moments from those missing messages appearing via other sources.

Evidence to one Covid Inquiry session earlier this week showed that Sturgeon called Boris Johnson a “fucking clown” in an October 2020 WhatsApp message exchange with her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd.

The comments accompanied the UK government’s announcement of the second national Covid lockdown. Sturgeon said the UK government’s handling of communications was “awful” and described Johnson’s announcement as “fucking excruciating”.

Lloyd was asked whether Sturgeon’s relationship with Johnson had broken down by the point the messages were sent.

"I think 'broken down' to a degree overstates what was there to break,” she responded.

Lloyd said that while there had been a polite and businesslike approach to meetings between Sturgeon and Johnson before the pandemic, Covid had made things “much harder”.

"It was evident in his exchanges with the Scottish Government, with the first minister, and I think with the other first ministers because we would all be on the same call, that he didn't want to be on those calls,” Lloyd said.

“He wasn't necessarily well briefed on those calls and he wasn't listening to the points we were making on those calls. And so, I think, engagement with him came to be seen as slightly pointless during this period.”

Lloyd has been unable to supply her WhatsApp messages from the first six months of the pandemic to the inquiry.

Yesterday she told the inquiry their absence was a matter of regret to her. “I thought I had them, I have sourced them, I have done everything that I am able to do as far as I can to find them,” she said. “I thought I had them and they’re not there.”

Speaking at first minister’s questions this week, Yousaf acknowledged that the transparency row the missing WhatsApps created had not been the Scottish Government’s “finest hour”.

But he said that more than 28,000 messages had been provided to the inquiry, which he said compared favourably to Sunak’s personal record of producing WhatsApps for scrutiny.

Yousaf added that all decisions were uploaded to the corporate record, even when they were made on WhatsApp. He has now commissioned an externally-led review into the use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology in the Scottish Government.

Giving evidence to the inquiry yesterday, he apologised for the Scottish Government’s “frankly poor handling of the various Rule 9 requests in relation to informal messages”. Rule 9 of the Inquiry Rules 2006 is a request for information.

Yousaf added: “There’s no excuse for it. We should have done better.”

As part of his evidence, Yousaf was asked about a Scottish Government submission from October that stated “some” of his pandemic-time WhatsApp message exchanges with Scottish Government and UK government ministers were believed to have been deleted.

Counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC asked: “You were under the impression that the messages had been deleted previously, in accordance with an existing government policy, but in fact it transpired they had not been deleted and were in fact recoverable relatively easily?”

Yousaf replied: “Yes.”

The first minister said he had been able to recover the messages from an old handset.

Compiled from reports by CSW’s sister title Holyrood

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