At a hearing in Edinburgh, the official investigation into the Covid crisis was told that the former first minister of Scotland had “retained no messages whatsoever”.
Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, revealed a document provided by the Scottish government about which WhatsApp messages it could provide and said that all Ms Sturgeon’s messages had been deleted.
He said: “Under the box ‘Nicola Sturgeon’, it says that messages were not retained, they were deleted in routine tidying up of inboxes or changes of phones, unable to retrieve messages.”
The counsel said it showed that Ms Sturgeon “had retained no messages whatsoever in connection with her management of the pandemic”.
Lesley Fraser, the director general corporate of the Scottish government, agreed, saying: “That’s what that indicates to me.”
Labour MSP Jackie Bailie said the revelation was “nothing short of horrifying” and “shows the lengths that Nicola Sturgeon is prepared to go to in order to prevent justice for Covid-bereaved families”.
And the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “This is one of the biggest scandals in Scottish political history.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said both Ms Sturgeon had “huge questions to answer over their conduct in the wake of this devastating revelation”.
Mr Ross said Ms Sturgeon’s reputation “now lies in tatters”, adding: “Secrecy and evasion were the hallmarks of her government – and this shameful cover-up, which amounts to a digital torching of vital evidence, is the most scandalous example of it.”
Ms Sturgeon had repeatedly refused to reveal whether she deleted messages. The ex-SNP chief had also given an “assurance” about transparency when she will grilled a Covid briefing back in August 2021.
The then-Scottish first minister was asked if she could “guarantee to the bereaved families that you will disclose emails, WhatsApps, private emails if you’ve been using them”.
Ms Sturgeon replied: “I think if you understand statutory public inquiries you would know that even if I wasn’t prepared to give that assurance – which for the avoidance of doubt I am – then I wouldn’t have the ability.”
The inquiry also saw a message from Scotland’s national clinical director Prof Jason Leitch, which suggested he deleted WhatsApp messages every day.
In the message exchange, Ken Thomson, the former director-general for strategy at the Scottish government, said he felt “moved to remind you at this point that this channel is FOI-recoverable”.
Prof Leitch – after another member of the group recommended they “clear the chat” – said: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”
Mr Dawson asked Mr Thomson if there was a “culture” of senior figures in the Scottish government deleting messages “in order to defeat the very purposes for which the policies are set up”.
The former senior civil servant replied: “I need to give you a longer answer to this question, but the short answer is no.”
Aamer Anwar, the lead solicitor for the Scottish Covid Bereaved campaigners, said: “The fact that deletion took place on an ‘industrial scale’ is a devastating betrayal of the many promises made by the Scottish government for full transparency and disclosure.”
The Covid inquiry is currently carrying out three weeks of hearings focusing on decisions in Scotland during the pandemic, with Ms Sturgeon set to be the star witness.
Responding to the outrage on Thursday, a spokesperson for Ms Sturgeon said on Thursday: “In the interests of everyone who has been impacted by the Covid pandemic, Nicola is committed to full transparency to both the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries.”
“Any messages she had, she handled and dealt with in line with the Scottish government’s policies,” the spokesperson added, saying Ms Sturgeon “will answer all questions put to her” when she appears at the inquiry.