Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she has “nothing to hide” under questioning about her WhatsApps, as 14,000 messages are set to be disclosed to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.
Press reports over the weekend suggested Ms Sturgeon’s messages from the time of the pandemic had been deleted and the now-backbench MSP told journalists in Holyrood she acted in line with Scottish Government policy on informal messaging.
The policy, published on Wednesday alongside a statement from Deputy First Minister Shona Robison saying thousands of messages will be given to the inquiry and First Minister Humza Yousaf will hand his over unredacted, said “business conversations” through informal messaging channels should be deleted “at least monthly” after any decisions had been noted in the Government’s record management system.
“I did not manage the Covid response by WhatsApp,” Ms Sturgeon said.
Speaking to reporters at Holyrood, she said she was not a member of any WhatsApp groups and she took decisions on the response at the Scottish Government headquarters at St Andrews House in Edinburgh.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I have nothing to hide – I am committed to full transparency to this inquiry and to the Scottish inquiry when it takes place, and I’m committed to that in the interests of everybody across this country who was affected by Covid.”
She added: “I gave my all to the management of the pandemic.
“Transparency for the families affected, by everybody affected by the pandemic, matters really a lot to me.”
Her comments come after Ms Robison told MSPs the Scottish Government would share more than 14,000 messages with the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.
In a statement at Holyrood, Ms Robison confirmed the Scottish Government had received a legal notice permitting it to hand over the messages on Monday.
Messages, including those from Scottish Government ministers and former ministers, are included in that, Ms Robison said.
The First Minister, when submitting a statement to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in the coming days, will “hand over WhatsApp messages unredacted to the inquiry”, she added.
The Deputy First Minister said a legal order, known as a Section 21 notice, had been required before the messages could be handed over because “a number of them were of a particularly personal nature, including photos of individuals’ children and personal medical details”.
With the order now received, Ms Robison told MSPs at Holyrood that work was “well under way” to ensure the messages would be handed over by the deadline set by the inquiry.
The Deputy First Minister added: “This will mean that all requested messages held will be shared, in full and unredacted, by November 6.”
She said the Scottish Government would “share over 14,000 mainly WhatsApp messages from various groups and individuals over the period of the pandemic”.
The Deputy First Minister added: “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.”
Ms Robison was giving a statement to MSPs at Holyrood after counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC revealed last week that “no messages” from within the Scottish Government had been provided.
There then followed press reports that Ms Sturgeon, as well as national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch and chief medical officer Dr Sir Gregor Smith, had deleted their messages.
Opposition politicians at Holyrood pressed Ms Robison on the deleted messages, with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross claiming “the stench of secrecy from this Government is overpowering”.
He asked if the 14,000 messages to be handed over would include “all messages” from Ms Sturgeon and Mr Leitch.
Adding that the Scottish Government had been told in June 2021 not to destroy any communications relating to the pandemic, Mr Ross added that anyone who had deleted messages after this date “would have broken the law”.
Ms Robison, however, said she could not say who the messages to be handed over to the inquiry were from, or what their content is, explaining that was “the confidential nature of what the inquiry has asked for”.
She added it was “in the gift of the inquiry itself” if any of them would be made public.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie claimed messages had been “destroyed on an industrial scale”.
She said: “A public inquiry was talked about in May 2020. Why did ministers not retain evidence from then?
“It is inconceivable that a former first minister would not understand the importance of that evidence.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, meanwhile, questioned if “life and death judgments” during the pandemic had ever “hinged around Nicola Sturgeon’s desire just to be different” from the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson.
On this, he said “we may never know” because “messages deleted at the very top of the Scottish Government erased the process by which ministers weighed the politics and science behind the decisions required of them”.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “This hastily-arranged Nicola Sturgeon press conference followed a familiar pattern to all those she’s held since leaving office: ‘I’ve done nothing wrong but I’m not answering your questions’.
“It was ridiculous for her to claim she’s committed to transparency while refusing, repeatedly, to confirm whether or not she deleted WhatsApp messages.
“This exercise in desperate stone-walling served no purpose other than further tarnishing Nicola Sturgeon’s diminishing reputation.”