The Scottish Government is facing scrutiny over its handling of communications during the Covid-19 crisis, after reports emerged that several officials, including former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, manually deleted their WhatsApp messages.
What were the messages about?
According to the Sunday Mail newspaper, which obtained the information through a Freedom of Information request, the messages were related to the Scottish Government’s response to the pandemic and its coordination with the UK Government and other devolved administrations.
The newspaper said that 70 Scottish Government figures, including current First Minister Humza Yousaf and former deputy first minister John Swinney, admitted that their WhatsApp data was not retained.
This means that these messages cannot be given to the UK or Scottish Covid inquiries, which are investigating how the pandemic was managed and what lessons can be learned for the future.
Why were the messages deleted?
The Scottish Government said that WhatsApp was not used for major decisions and that if it was, a record would be kept elsewhere.
A spokesperson for Sturgeon said: “Nicola will continue to provide all information requested by the inquiry that she holds and will continue to cooperate fully with both the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries.
She has recently submitted her third written statement to the UK inquiry – running to around 200 pages – and expects to give oral evidence again next year when she will answer all questions put to her.”
However, some critics have questioned the transparency and accountability of the Scottish Government and accused it of trying to hide information from the public and the inquiries.
How common is WhatsApp use in government?
WhatsApp is a popular messaging app that allows users to send encrypted texts, voice notes, images and videos. It also has a feature that allows users to delete messages for everyone within a certain time limit.
Many government officials around the world use WhatsApp for official or unofficial communication, especially during emergencies or crises.
However, this also raises concerns about data protection, security and record-keeping, as WhatsApp messages may contain sensitive or confidential information that could be lost, leaked or tampered with.
Some governments have issued guidelines or rules on how WhatsApp should be used by public servants, while others have banned or restricted its use altogether.
What are the implications of deleting WhatsApp messages?
Deleting WhatsApp messages may have legal, ethical and political implications for the Scottish Government and its officials.
Legally, they may be breaching the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, which requires public authorities to preserve and disclose information that is relevant to requests from the public.
Ethically, they may be violating the principles of openness, honesty and integrity that are expected from public servants.
Politically, they may be damaging their reputation and credibility among the public and their counterparts in other governments.
What will happen next?
The Scottish Government said that it is working to provide any WhatsApp messages relating to logistics and day-to-day communication that were requested by the UK Covid Inquiry.
It also said that subject to approval from the Parliamentary Bureau, the deputy first minister will seek to make a statement to parliament on the issue early next week.
However, it is unclear whether this will satisfy the inquiries and the public, or whether it will lead to more questions and criticism.
The Scottish Government may face further challenges as it tries to balance its communication needs with its legal obligations and public expectations.