Scottish ministers have not handed over any WhatsApp messages to the UK’s Covid Inquiry

The Scottish Government has failed to hand over any WhatsApp messages to the UK-wide inquiry into the Covid pandemic, with concerns raised that “very few” have been kept.

Humza Yousaf has asked the Solicitor General, Ruth Charteris KC, to urgently investigate the issue which was raised during the latest hearing of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Thursday.

Jack Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, said the Scottish Government had been asked to disclose private messages containing discussions on key decision-making.

He said several witness statements had suggested that “informal communications” such as WhatsApp messages were used by key members of Nicola Sturgeon’s government to discuss the advice they were receiving about the pandemic and what policies to employ in response.

However, he told the inquiry that “no messages were provided” in response to the request and that the Scottish Government would shortly be served with a legal notice under the Inquiries Act 2005, which compels individuals to hand over evidence, with those who refuse facing jail or a fine.

“At present the Scottish Government has provided the inquiry with no WhatsApp or other informal material,” Mr Dawson said.

He added that the Scottish Government had also been ask to disclose how many of its approximately 70 witnesses of interest to the inquiry had used WhatsApp or other similar messaging apps during the pandemic and whether the exchanges still existed.

“A clear theme of the overall response received from and via the Scottish Government is that although such messaging systems were used in the pandemic response – including by some key decision-makers and others – generally very few messages appear to have been retained,” he added.

“This is surprising, in particular in light of the apparent availability of such messages in high volumes within the UK Government.”

Mr Dawson also said that one individual who worked for the Scottish Government during the pandemic had “voluntarily” provided the inquiry with some of her WhatsApp messages, but that this only related to a period of five and a half months.

He added that the Scottish Government had so far only provided the inquiry with one notebook containing material relating to the pandemic, but had located at least 57 others which were being reviewed.

Lawyer Aamer Anwar, who represents the Scottish Covid Bereaved group, described the revelations as “devastating” and said affected relatives would find it “inconceivable that the most senior figures in the Scottish Government…failed to retain their WhatsApp messages over the two-year period of the pandemic”.

He added: “None should be above the law, whether it be the UK Government or Scottish Government.”

Pressed over the issue at First Minister’s Questions, Mr Yousaf said he had ordered Ms Charteris to investigate and was “seeking assurances” that “do not destroy” notices issued by the inquiry about such messages had been “fully complied with, not just by ministers but by every relevant Scottish Government official”.

He said his Government does “take seriously the concerns that have been raised by counsel”, adding: “I can only say to the families listening we will take on board those concerns, we will internally investigate fully, because my understanding, certainly as I stand here today, is that relevant information has been passed over.

“There are some messages that we are going to continue to provide but they have to go through the appropriate processes. We will continue to hand over those messages.”

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