Nicola Sturgeon's pandemic WhatsApp messages 'all deleted', UK COVID inquiry hears

All of Nicola Sturgeon's WhatsApp messages during the pandemic appear to have been deleted, the UK COVID inquiry has heard.

The hearing, which is currently sitting in Edinburgh, also heard evidence in which top Scottish government advisor Professor Jason Leitch described erasing the messages as a "pre-bed ritual".

Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, said former first minister Ms Sturgeon appeared to have "retained no messages whatsoever".

The hearing also heard evidence that her deputy John Swinney's WhatsApp messages were either deleted manually or by using the app's auto-delete function.

Ms Sturgeon has previously insisted she has "nothing to hide" and never used the informal messaging to make decisions during the pandemic.

She will give evidence to the inquiry in the coming weeks.

Mr Dawson highlighted a table submitted by the Scottish government which appeared to confirm Ms Sturgeon had not retained her WhatsApp messages.

He said: "In the summary table that we see here, we can see that 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'.

"What that tends to suggest is that at the time a request was made, Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister of Scotland, had retained no messages whatsoever in connection with her management of the pandemic."

He asked Lesley Fraser, the director-general corporate of the Scottish government, if that was correct.

"That's what that indicates to me," she replied.

Ms Fraser also confirmed the Scottish government had been unable to supply Ms Sturgeon's messages from its corporate record.

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Ms Fraser explained that ministers may have managed their messages involving their private offices in such a way in order to stop the messaging becoming "unmanageable".

She said some messages were simply "banter" that did not need to be retained, and others may have been lost when phones were upgraded.

In response to the inquiry evidence, a spokesperson for Ms Sturgeon said: "Any messages she had, she handled and dealt with in line with the Scottish government's policies.

"Nicola has provided a number of written statements to the UK inquiry - totalling hundreds of pages - and welcomes the opportunity to give oral evidence to the inquiry again this month when she will answer all questions put to her."

The inquiry was also shown transcripts of a conversation involving national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch and Ken Thomson, the Scottish government's former director-general of strategy and external affairs.

Mr Thomson warned that the contents of a chat was "FOI-recoverable" and sent an emoji face with a mouth zipped shut.

Professor Leith responded: "WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual."

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney have "huge questions to answer" and claimed their actions may have been illegal.

He said: "What were they trying to hide? Shamefully and outrageously for families of those who died during the pandemic, we may never know.

"Nicola Sturgeon's reputation, which has been tarnished by a series of scandals in the last year, now lies in tatters.

"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."