The Scottish government’s stance on pandemic-related WhatsApp messages is one of transparency, as Economy and Fair Work Secretary Neil Gray assured that they have “nothing to hide.” Gray expressed confidence in the government’s commitment to provide 14,000 electronic messages to the UK Covid Inquiry as pledged. Allegations of a cover-up arose after concerns were raised about erased files during the inquiry.
Gray emphasized the government’s cooperation with both Scottish and UK inquiries, stating, “We’ve got nothing to hide.” He expressed faith in the information they are handing over and indicated that it would be up to the inquiries to decide how to disseminate the information.
The Scottish government was requested to submit pandemic-related WhatsApp messages in September. The inquiry sought to review the WhatsApp messages of 70 officials, medical chiefs, ministers, and former ministers, identifying 137 messaging groups with potential relevant information. However, the inquiry discovered that very few of the messages it sought had been retained.
In response, the Scottish government announced that it would release 14,000 mainly WhatsApp messages by Monday, excluding minister-to-minister conversations, focusing on discussions involving at least one civil servant in groups of three or more.
Gray clarified that under Scottish government policy, decisions made through messaging or phone calls are transcribed and added to the records system, ensuring the decision itself and the context are retained. First Minister Humza Yousaf affirmed that he did not erase any messages and would provide his records to the inquiries in full.
The government faced a formal legal order to release WhatsApp material under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 due to data privacy concerns. Several senior government members have been accused of wiping messages but expressed willingness to cooperate with the inquiries. Some officials confirmed retaining relevant correspondence related to the pandemic and sharing it with the Covid inquiry.
The inquiry issued a “do not destroy” order in August 2022, making it potentially illegal for witnesses to delete Covid-related messages after that date. The Scottish government’s mobile messaging policy, introduced in November 2021, stipulates regular deletion of government-related conversations while preserving essential business discussions and decisions in the official record system. Their records management policy, introduced in February 2021, mandates keeping records as long as necessary for fulfilling the government’s business and legal obligations.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross criticized the government’s approach, suggesting that it resembled an attempt to destroy evidence. He argued that the SNP introduced an auto-delete policy after the announcement of the Scottish Covid inquiry in August 2021. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar accused the government of abdicating responsibility, citing confidentiality rules as a barrier to confirming which ministers deleted evidence.