Covid WhatsApp messages: Nicola Sturgeon and co engaged in a cover-up of historic proportions – Scotsman comment

Nicola Sturgeon previously insisted she would cooperate fully with the Covid inquiry (Picture: Jane Barlow/pool/Getty Images)Nicola Sturgeon previously insisted she would cooperate fully with the Covid inquiry (Picture: Jane Barlow/pool/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon previously insisted she would cooperate fully with the Covid inquiry (Picture: Jane Barlow/pool/Getty Images)
Information sought by the UK Covid Inquiry was destroyed en masse by Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and senior civil servants

They were supposed to be looking after the public during the greatest crisis of modern times. But, almost from the beginning, those in charge of Scotland’s response to the Covid pandemic were focussed on looking after number one, deleting exchanges of messages en masse to prevent them from falling into the public domain.

In the darkest hours our nation has faced in a generation, they were serving themselves, and they did so with a nod, a wink, and zipped-mouth emojis. They were out of their depth and they knew it. Desperate to avoid scrutiny of the messy business of decision-making, they connived to cover their tracks. Instead of “wheesht for indy”, this was “wheesht for our careers”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Messages about deleting messages – which they ironically and incompetently allowed to escape their daily purges of evidence – show a jocular disregard for the need to keep records about decision-making on matters that affected millions. Records that would have helped the inquiry they knew was coming to make recommendations that might save lives in the future. This is why the UK Covid Inquiry wanted to see the messages, and why this really matters.

Nixon didn’t destroy Watergate tapes

All the while, the plausible frontwoman of the enterprise, Nicola Sturgeon, sanctimoniously assured us she wanted nothing more than full transparency. She wanted nothing like it. Of all the Covid WhatsApp messages she sent, not a single one is available to the inquiry.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said that deleting messages “on an industrial scale” represented “one of the biggest scandals in Scottish political history”. “Even Richard Nixon didn’t destroy the Watergate tapes,” he added. And Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross pointed out that the mass deletions were in defiance of the inquiry’s “clear instructions from June 2021 that all relevant messages had to be retained… their actions may be illegal”.

Giving evidence to the inquiry, Ken Thomson, recently appointed chair of global accountancy body Icas’s regulatory board, was questioned about posts he wrote while working as the Scottish Government’s director general for strategy and external affairs. In a “Covid outbreak group” chatroom in August 2020, he warned participants that the messages were “discoverable” under Freedom of Information law and told them to use the “clear chat button”. “Plausible deniability is my middle name,” he boasted.

Asked if this was an attempt to defeat FoI requests, his evidence to the inquiry was “no”. He did not remember the conversation but suggested he may have been trying to protect private information in previous messages. A “plausible” denial? We think not. Private information is not covered by FoI law. In another WhatsApp post in 2021, Thomson again warned about FoI requests, with national clinical director Jason Leith responding: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”

A cynical political judgment

It’s not known whether Sturgeon and her then deputy, ‘Honest’ John Swinneycriticised by the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry report last year for a “lack of candour” that called his integrity into question – followed the same routine or dumped the whole lot in one go.

But it is clear they made a deeply cynical political judgment that the damage to their reputations caused by releasing the messages would be worse than that caused by covering them up. It was a pervasive attitude throughout the Scottish Government, which appears to have been captured by a culture of secrecy.

It’s hard to believe that much has changed since Sturgeon’s resignation. However, the public will probably not demand a wholesale clearout of politicians and civil servants who conspire to deceive by hiding what really happens at the heart of government. Depressingly, that’s almost certainly what they calculated all along.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.