THE Scottish Government is set to hand over more than 14,000 WhatsApp messages to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament, Deputy First Minister Shona Robison said that work was underway to provide the inquiry with all informal communications – even ones that may have been deleted – after receiving a Section 21 notice from the Inquiry.

It comes after reports claimed that some WhatsApp messages relating to the coronavirus pandemic had been deleted from the phone of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

First Minister Humza Yousaf insisted earlier this week that he had retained his electronic messages and would be fully complying with the probe. 

Robison told MSPs that the Scottish Government’s WhatsApp groups aimed at dealing with “coordination, logistics and day-to-day communication” during the pandemic contained sensitive material, including pictures of the children of government officials and private medical details.

She said: “The UK Inquiry asked in June for summaries of all WhatsApp and similar groups related to coordination, logistics and day-to-day communication - greatly expanding the scope of what the Scottish Government needed to collate and process accordingly.

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“This request was followed in September by a request for the actual messages exchanged within these groups.In examining the messages collated, it was clear that a number of them were of a particularly personal nature, including photos of individuals’ children and personal medical details.

“In order to reconcile our obligations as data controller for the contents of the messages with our desire to cooperate fully with the Inquiry, the Scottish Government wrote to the UK Inquiry on 5th October requesting a Section 21 notice, to provide the necessary legal basis for providing the information within the messages.”

She added: “The Scottish Government received this Section 21 notice yesterday, and I can confirm that work is well under way to fully comply in accordance with the timetable set by the UK Inquiry.

“This will mean that all requested messages held will be shared, in full and unredacted, by 6 November.

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“In addition to the hundreds of messages already handed over to the UK Inquiry, this notice will allow us to share over 14,000, mainly WhatsApp, messages from various groups and individuals over the period of the pandemic, mostly concerning routine coordination of work and meetings by officials.

“I can confirm that messages from Ministers and former Ministers are included.

“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.

“We will, of course, continue to fully cooperate with both inquiries and will share any additional messages, should more become available or further material be requested.”

Robison made clear that she was unable to provide details on what has or has not been provided to both the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry and the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. 

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“It is important to note that both inquiries have made all their requests to witnesses in confidence, and those requests are not public,” she said.

“All those receiving requests, including Scottish Government, have been told by the inquiries not to share their content. It is entirely up to – and wholly a matter for – the independent inquiry chairs to determine, where appropriate, whether to publish the material they receive." 

Informal messages sent and received by First Minister Humza Yousaf during the Covid-19 pandemic, when he served as justice secretary and health secretary, will be handed over to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry unredacted, Robison added. 

On Monday, the First Minister said the Scottish Government "had a social media messaging policy that required us to routinely delete WhatsApp messages" during the period of the pandemic in question. 

However, Robison appeared to try and clarify this statement. 

She said: “Contrary to some reports there is not and has not ever been a requirement for any official, let alone ministers, to auto-delete messages without ensuring that relevant information from them is captured and saved appropriately first."