UK Covid Inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon WhatsApp message deletion evidence may have 'subverted' FOI principles, says Information Commissioner

Information Commissioner David Hamilton has spoken about the revelations

Scotland’s information commissioner has said revelations about the co-ordinated deletion of WhatsApp messages by Scottish Government officials during the pandemic may have “subverted” the principles of Freedom of Information (FOI) and require action.

David Hamilton said he was “concerned” by recent revelations at the UK Covid Inquiry, saying there may be implications for FOI.

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It comes after the inquiry was told last week that all of Nicola Sturgeon’s WhatsApp messages during the pandemic had been deleted.

Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood while still first minister. Picture: Lisa FergusonNicola Sturgeon at Holyrood while still first minister. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood while still first minister. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The former first minister said the inquiry does have messages between herself and those she regularly communicated with, and that decisions on the pandemic were recorded formally in line with Scottish Government policy.

Ms Sturgeon said she will answer questions “directly and openly” when she appears at the inquiry later this month.

The inquiry also heard a message from national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch suggesting he deleted messages every day as a “pre-bed ritual”.

Mr Hamilton, whose remit is to enforce FOI law, told the BBC some evidence suggested the principles of FOI may have been “subverted”, noting, in itself, that would not be enough for him to take action.

He said: “Some of the material that came out last week, I think many people would say it beggars belief in terms of what it is. Of course, that needs context and it needs investigation if there’s something wrong there.”

Mr Hamilton said he is committed to protecting the freedom of information regime, saying it is “critical to democracy”.

He is looking at previous freedom of information requests to see if anything could have been affected by the issue raised at the inquiry.

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However, Mr Hamilton said he first needed to establish if he had a “locus” on the matter before launching any investigation.

He said: “What we need to look at is the principles of the freedom of information regime, and that’s my locus in this, not the particular aspects of the inquiry. Some of the threads which came out there are a bit concerning frankly.”

He added: “We need to look at that and see if there is an issue for freedom of information that I need to be looking at.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “People all across the country will share these concerns. We now know that Nicola Sturgeon destroyed every single one of her WhatsApp messages from the pandemic, while members of her top team deleted theirs as part of a ‘pre-bed ritual’.

“All of this looks like a concerted effort to limit the information available to the inquiries and prevent the full transparency that Nicola Sturgeon promised both Parliament and the people of Scotland. That is unforgiveable.

“As soon as she has concluded her appearance before the inquiry, Nicola Sturgeon must come to Parliament to make a personal statement before MSPs and stop dodging questions.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has accepted in full the recommendations of the Scottish Information Commissioner’s most recent FOI performance report, and welcomed the progress it showed. The commissioner's report has informed our refreshed improvement plan to further strengthen FOI practice.

“The Scottish Government is committed to responding to both the UK and Scottish Covid-19 inquiries, as learning lessons from the pandemic is vital to prepare for the future.

“It would be inappropriate to comment on the detail of evidence being considered by the UK Covid Inquiry while hearings are ongoing.”



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