The UK Covid Inquiry has heard that Scotland’s chief medical officer, Prof Gregor Smith, advised colleagues to delete WhatsApp messages daily during the pandemic. Prof Smith admitted to frequently erasing his own messages in accordance with government policy. He assured that any significant information regarding decision-making was documented via email. The Scottish government has expressed satisfaction with the steps taken to meet the inquiry’s requests.
Prof Smith assumed the role of interim chief medical officer in April 2020, following Catherine Calderwood’s resignation for breaching Covid rules. His appointment was made permanent in December 2020. Calderwood has been excused from testifying at this stage due to medical reasons.
The inquiry revealed a July 2021 WhatsApp conversation between Prof Smith and Prof Graham Ellis, a geriatric medicine expert and clinical advisor to the chief medical officer. In the chat, Prof Ellis queried if the conversation was subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, to which Prof Smith responded: “Delete at the end of every day…”
Prof Smith explained to the inquiry that it was his practice to document any crucial information via email to create an auditable trail. He also encouraged his colleagues to do the same. He clarified that the official system recorded definitive information once a consensus was reached, which was not a verbatim account of a conversation but rather the essence of any decision.
David Hamilton, the official in charge of enforcing FOI laws in Scotland, expressed concern over the published messages, suggesting that they appeared to subvert FOI rules. He warned that he could initiate an investigation if necessary.
The Scottish government issued mobile messaging guidance for officials and ministers in November 2021, stating that they could use WhatsApp and other messaging services for business purposes. However, they were required to transcribe significant points of business discussions and decisions into an email or text document before saving the information centrally.
The UK Covid Inquiry also revealed that former first minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared to have retained no messages, and her then-deputy John Swinney’s WhatsApp messaging was set to auto-delete. However, Sturgeon stated that copies of some of her messages were retrieved and submitted to the inquiry last year.
The Scottish government has stated its commitment to responding to both the UK and Scottish Covid-19 inquiries, emphasizing the importance of learning from the pandemic to prepare for the future. It refrained from commenting on the evidence being considered by the UK Covid Inquiry while hearings are ongoing.