Leitch did not retain any informal pandemic messages, UK Covid inquiry hears

Scotland’s national clinical director did not retain any informal, one-to-one messages relating to management of the pandemic but denies deleting WhatsApps daily in a “pre-bed ritual”, an inquiry has heard.

Professor Jason Leitch told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish Government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.

He also told the inquiry that the idea that deleting WhatsApp messages was a “pre-bed ritual” was a “flippant exaggeration” and that he did not do so every day.

He is appearing at the inquiry amid a storm over WhatsApp messages after it emerged that the messages of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy, John Swinney, were among those whose messages were not retained.

Giving evidence on Tuesday, Mr Leitch told the inquiry: “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 delete the informal messaging, and that’s the guidance I followed.”

Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel to the current module of the inquiry, then read out a statement from Mr Leitch in which he said: “Except for direct messages from my Twitter account, I have not retained any one-to-one informal communications in relation to the management of the pandemic in Scotland, this is because I followed the policy described in more detail above.”

Mr Dawson asked: “So, you used text messages, WhatsApp messages, is that right? But you did not retain them above and beyond the interpretation of the policy that you’ve just set out for us?”

Sir Gregor Smith, chief medical officer for Scotland, departs the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre
Professor Sir Gregor Smith instructed colleagues to delete WhatsApp messages, the inquiry has heard (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Mr Leitch replied: “Correct.”

He was also asked about a message exchange shown to the inquiry last week in which he appeared to suggest deleting WhatsApp messages was a “pre-bed ritual”.

Mr Leitch said: “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 work had been managed and dealt with, then I would delete 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.”

It has emerged that the messages of Ms Sturgeon and former first minister John Swinney have not been retained, although Ms Sturgeon said in a statement at the weekend that correspondence had been given to the inquiry after being saved by recipients.

On Monday, the issue was raised with Scotland’s chief medical officer, Professor Sir Gregor Smith, with a message showing him instructing colleagues to “delete at the end of every day”.

Sir Gregor told the inquiry that Scottish Government advice was “not to retain information for longer than it was necessary”, adding that information he deemed to be pertinent would not be recorded “verbatim” on Government systems, but the “essence” would.

Opposition politicians have accused officials of secrecy over the issue, with the Scottish Tories calling for Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney to make a statement in Parliament.

Prof Leitch shot to prominence during the pandemic, appearing at Scottish Government briefings alongside the then first minister on a near-daily basis as well as fronting public information campaigns on TV, radio and online.

The UK inquiry has moved to Edinburgh as it probes the devolved administration’s response to the pandemic.