COVID adviser denies daily purge of WhatsApps – despite ‘pre-bed ritual’ message

UK

Professor Jason Leitch has said his claim of deleting WhatsApp messages as a “pre-bed ritual” was a “flippant exaggeration”.

The Scottish government’s national clinical director is giving evidence to the UK COVID inquiry, which is currently sitting in Edinburgh.

Last week the inquiry was shown transcripts of a group chat.

Within the message, Ken Thomson, the Scottish government’s former director-general of strategy and external affairs, warned that its contents were “FOI-recoverable” and sent an emoji face with a mouth zipped shut.

Professor Leitch responded: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”

On Tuesday, Professor Leitch said the comment was “slightly flippant”.

He added: “It’s an exaggeration. I didn’t daily delete my WhatsApp.

“My position is – as I have just described to you – that I tried to do today’s work today, and if I could assure myself that that work had been managed and dealt with, then I deleted the informal messaging that had led to that moment.

“But this was a flippant exaggeration in an informal messaging group, and it wasn’t done every day before I went to bed.”

Professor Leitch’s statement followed reports last year that senior Scottish government officials deleted messages relating to the pandemic regularly and could not hand them to the inquiry.

The inquiry has already heard former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy John Swinney did not retain messages, although Ms Sturgeon later said correspondence had been handed over after being saved by recipients.

Jamie Dawson KC, the counsel to the inquiry, said the exchange in Professor Leitch’s chat suggested that those in the group were “keen to try to delete messages which may subsequently be recoverable in a freedom of information request”.

Professor Leitch refuted the suggestion.

He said: “That isn’t my position.”

Read more:
Key WhatsApp messages from the UK COVID inquiry
Sturgeon not being investigated by police ‘at this time’ over ‘deleted’ WhatsApps

Chief medical officer told colleagues to delete WhatsApps ‘at end of every day’

Professor Leitch admitted he had not retained one-to-one informal communications – except DMs from his X account – in relation to the management of the pandemic.

He maintained he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.

Professor Leitch explained: “As you’ve heard, the record retention policy was that you could use informal messaging systems for Scottish government business.

“If you did, you should ensure that any advice or any decisions or anything that should be in the corporate record was then placed in that corporate record by email, briefing, etc, and then you should then delete the informal messaging, and that’s the guidance I followed.”

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