Euan McColm Euan McColm

What happened to Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid WhatsApps?

Nicola Sturgeon (Credit: Getty images)

A great modern Scottish myth is that the handling of the coronavirus pandemic by government ministers in Edinburgh was vastly superior to that of their counterparts in London. This rather distasteful display of Scottish exceptionalism ignores the fact that where the UK government got things right, so did the Scottish and that, likewise, mistakes were replicated on both sides of the border.

This should come as a surprise to nobody. Quite rightly, both the UK and Scottish governments moved in lockstep throughout the worst of the pandemic, with scientific advisers and ministers in regular cross-border contact.

It’s not as if Sturgeon didn’t know that an inquiry would, in time, wish to examine the decision-making of politicians

The falsehood of Scotland’s superior response to coronavirus was built upon wildly differing perceptions of the heads of government at Holyrood and Westminster. Former prime minister Boris Johnson was – and remains – widely despised in Scotland while former first minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed the benefit of not being Boris Johnson.

The fanciful idea of Sturgeon’s superiority has now taken a hell of a beating. Thanks to the journalistic endeavours of John Ferguson, political editor of Scotland’s Sunday Mail, we now know that Sturgeon seems to have failed in her commitment that she would do everything necessary to assist the public inquiry into handling of the pandemic. Ferguson reports that messages concerning Covid-19 sent and received by Sturgeon on WhatsApp were manually deleted from her phone.

Sturgeon is one of around 70 senior Scottish government figures, including ministers, advisers and civil servants, whose WhatsApp messages have not been provided to the UK-wide inquiry into the political response to the pandemic. Both she and her successor, Humza Yousaf, have previously claimed that they would comply fully with all requests made by the inquiry and that they would ensure all relevant information was made available. Now, it seems those words were meaningless.

It’s not as if Sturgeon didn’t know that an inquiry would, in time, wish to examine the decision-making and the actions of politicians. As far back as 27 May 2020, in response to a question about Covid-infected pensioners being discharged from hospitals and sent to care homes where the virus killed hundreds, the then first minister told the Scottish parliament: ‘I not only expect but absolutely want there to be a review or inquiry – people can call it what they want – into every aspect of the crisis. That is vital for accountability, but also to learn lessons for the future, and it will undoubtedly include what the situation was in care homes.’

Appearing on BBC One Scotland’s current affairs programme, the Sunday Show, Aamer Anwer – a lawyer representing families of coronavirus victims – said: ‘From May 2020, if there was a position of auto-delete, if there was a situation where government ministers were deleting and senior civil servants were deleting their materials from their WhatsApps, it should have been ordered to be stopped. We want to know when was the deletion brought in. Who ordered it, why was it not ordered to be stopped and did they continue after the event?’

Following the Sunday Mail’s revelations, a spokesperson for Sturgeon said: ‘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.’

That’s what we might call ‘carefully worded’. There is no denial of the deletion of relevant messages and the words ‘that she holds’ paper over the fact that the First Minister herself appears responsible for the fact she no longer holds all information requested by the inquiry.

SNP ministers have never shied from criticising Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, it seems clear they were hurling stones from within a huge glass house.