SCOTTISH ministers have key questions to answer amid reports that WhatsApp messages about decisions taken during the Covid pandemic have been deleted, according to a top lawyer.

Aamer Anwar, the lead solicitor for the Scottish Covid Bereaved group at the Scottish and UK Covid Inquiries, said it was vital for WhatsApp messages between up to 70 senior ministers and civil servants to be published in order to give the public more than a “sanitised version” of events.

It comes after the Sunday Mail reported that key WhatsApp messages had been manually deleted from the phone of Nicola Sturgeon, who was first minister during the pandemic.

A spokesperson for the former SNP leader told that paper that she would “continue to provide all information requested by the inquiry that she holds”, but speaking to the BBC, Anwar raised concerns.

“Well, ‘that she holds’,” he said. “What about the material that’s been deleted? We want answers. Why delete it?

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“May 27, 2020 she stood up in the Scottish parliament and said there was a public inquiry. An order should have gone out immediately to say no destruction of any evidence anywhere.”

It is not only Sturgeon under fire amid suggestions that WhatsApp messages were deleted. The Government denied earlier this week that Jason Leitch, the national clinical director, had deleted messages every day during the pandemic.

Anwar noted that the Covid Inquiry had been told “that 137 WhatsApp groups, up to 70 senior government ministers and senior civil servants, have been involved in not retaining, manually deleting, or in the question of auto-deleting their WhatsApp messages”.

Previously, First Minister Humza Yousaf (below) ordered an investigation after Jamie Dawson KC – the lead counsel in the Scotland module of the inquiry –  told the hearing that the Scottish Government has not yet handed over messages.

The National: First Minister Humza Yousaf. (Jane Barlow/PA)

A note to the inquiry from Dawson and its legal team, published on Thursday evening, said: “It is currently understood that although WhatsApps appear to have been used to send messages relating to and surrounding key decisions by some members of Scottish Government, the majority of the messages have not been retained by witnesses.”

Anwar told the BBC’s Sunday Show that there were key questions to answer over the reported deletion of messages.

He said: “On May 27, 2020, Nicola Sturgeon stood up in the Scottish Parliament and said that there would of course be a public inquiry …

"From May 2020, at that very point, if there was a position of auto-delete, if there was a situation in which government ministers and senior civil servants were deleting materials from their WhatsApps, it must, it should have been ordered to be stopped.

“So we want to know, first of all, when was the deletion brought in, who ordered it, why was it not ordered to be stopped, and did they continue after the event.”

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WhatsApp messages from former prime minister Boris Johnson were initially withheld by the UK Cabinet Office, who claimed they only needed to submit relevant messages.

However, a High Court battle saw them forced to release messaging in full after a ruling that what should be handed over was down to the inquiry’s chair, Heather Hallett.

Anwar said that the messages released after that court ruling “exposed a culture of impunity, a culture of denial, and total utter chaos at the heart of Number 10”.

“Had we not got those WhatsApp messages, what we would have received was a sanitised version,” he added.

Sturgeon’s spokesperson told the Sunday Mail: “Nicola will continue to provide all information requested by the inquiry that she holds and will continue to cooperate fully with both the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries.

The National:

“She has recently submitted her third written statement to the UK inquiry – running to around 200 pages – and expects to give oral evidence again next year when she will answer all questions put to her.”

And a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As the First Minister has made clear, the Scottish Government is wholly committed to cooperating fully with the Covid-19 inquiries. This includes providing any requested material that we hold.

“More than 13,000 documents from the official record have been sent to the UK Inquiry from the Scottish Government, in addition to the corporate and personal statements requested. Providing the formal decision-making record has been our priority.

“The UK Inquiry has subsequently asked for WhatsApp messages relating to logistics and day-to-day communication, which we are working to provide.”