THE UK Covid Inquiry  in Scotland has brought a renewed storm over the issue of government WhatsApp messages.

While it was the explosive content of messages from UK ministers and officials which dominated headlines last year, the focus so far north of the Border has been on whether WhatsApps have been kept.

Last week the inquiry heard former first minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared to have “retained no messages whatsoever” from the pandemic.

But in a statement, she said she had not retained informal messages on her own device, but copies had been submitted - and stressed that she had acted in line with Scottish Government policy.

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Meanwhile Scotland's chief medical officer Professor Gregor Smith told colleagues to delete WhatsApp messages "every day" during the pandemic, saying he erased his own messages "on a frequent basis" in line with government policy.

And Scotland’s national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish Government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.

So what were the rules on WhatsApp messages in the Scottish Government?

According to documents released under Freedom Of Information law, the Scottish Government’s “longstanding” policy on records management was that “regardless of the source medium, information relevant to the corporate record must be saved”.

Guidance was also posted on the Scottish Government intranet on April 27 2020 – during the first pandemic lockdown – which stated that apps like Zoom, Slack and WhatsApp could be downloaded by must be used in a “responsible, professional manner”.

But it noted that apps are for “official info only”, subject to Freedom of Information legislation and are “transitory and not used as the official record”.

It added: “Messages should be deleted as soon as they are no longer needed.”

In November 2021, further guidance was issued on the use of WhatsApp in a document titled “Scottish Government Mobile Messaging Apps - usage and policy”.

This states that the use of mobile messaging “does not change your responsibility within Scottish Government to maintain complete and comprehensive records of key conversations and decisions.”

It sets out that at least monthly, but “preferably at the earliest opportunity”, the “salient points” of any business discussions or decisions in a mobile messaging app into document to be saved to the system which manages electronic documents.

The guidance also states that consideration should be given to whether “aspects” of a mobile messaging app conversation should be transcribed for Freedom of Information requests.

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It adds: “At least monthly, after having followed the guidance in the above paragraphs, you must delete business conversations in the mobile messaging app – i.e. no business conversations should be retained in the app for more than one month.”

The guidance can be seen in the context of the risk that phones may be lost or stolen – but questions have been raised over the question of which important points should be saved being left down to individuals.

So did everyone interpret the guidance the same way?

Not all ministers followed the advice in the same way – with both First Minister Humza Yousaf and former finance secretary Kate Forbes saying they have retained all their messages.

In October, Deputy First Minister Shona Robison pledged the Scottish Government would hand over more than 14,000 WhatsApp messages to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

What’s in those messages – and the guidance on which outlined how they should have been kept – will be in the spotlight in the coming days.