Humza Yousaf has revealed the Scottish Government has a policy to “routinely delete WhatsApp messages” as he denied media reports he has deleted evidence wanted by the UK Covid Inquiry.

The revelation of a policy for officials and ministers to delete WhatsApp messages, which are subject to disclosure under Freedom of information laws, has been described as “looking like a conspiracy against the public”.

The Sunday Mail reported that the First Minister was amongst dozens of Scottish Government politicians and officials who have actively deleted WhatsApp messages wanted by the UK Covid Inquiry.

The paper also accused then first minister Nicola Sturgeon on deleting WhatsApp messages, while The Times suggested clinical director, Professor Jason Leith had done likewise.

But Mr Yousaf has insisted that this is not true and he intends to hand over his messages that he has retained to the inquiry.

Read more: Reports suggest Sturgeon and Yousaf deleted WhatsApp Covid messages

But the First Minister also confirmed that the Scottish Government has a policy to routinely delete WhatsApp messages.

Speaking to LBC, he said: “We had a social media messaging policy which actually required us to routinely delete WhatsApp messages. That was the policy at the time.

"Now the ‘do-not-destroy’ notice is one that I expect everybody to comply with – Scottish Government ministers, former ministers, and, of course, Government officials and clinical directors and clinical advisers. That’s my expectation.”

Asked by the PA news agency about the reports he has deleted WhatsApp messages, the FM said: “I don’t know why there’s been press reports suggesting I’ve deleted my WhatsApp messages, that’s not true.

Read more: Covid secrecy row as Jason Leitch deletes WhatsApp messages

“I’ve retained my WhatsApp messages and, of course, whatever the Covid Inquiry asks for, I’ll be absolutely prepared to hand them over as I would for the Scottish inquiry too.”

Pressed why a blanket policy was not installed to ensure ministers and officials saved all messages from after the announcement of an inquiry – which Scotland was the first in the UK to do – the First Minister said it would be “very difficult” and would have gone against Government social media policy which suggested the deletion of messages after 30 days.

He added: “The important thing, I don’t think is always necessarily whether you communicate over email, whether you communicate over WhatsApp, whether you have a telephone call, the point is that if a decision is made, then it’s properly recorded within our records management system.

“That was done – of course, many documents have been handed over to the inquiry, somewhere in the order of 13,000.”

Asked if the deletion of messages could damage the credibility of both the Scottish and UK-wide inquiries, the First Minister did not answer, saying instead that any decisions would have been logged in the Scottish Government’s records management system.

“Of course, that’s important – people need to know what decisions were made and, rightly, can question us on why those decisions were made when we appear in front of any of the inquiries.”

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison, who is leading the Scottish Government’s response to the inquiry, is due to make a statement in Parliament this week on the evidence that has been handed over.

Read more: Scottish Government fail to hand over any messages to UK Covid inquiry

Asked if Ms Sturgeon, Prof Leitch and Sir Gregor had deleted their messages, the First Minister was unable to say, but added that he would expect the officials to have retained messages relevant to the inquiry.

“They will have to answer for themselves, I can’t answer for the former first minister, I haven’t seen her statement to the Covid Inquiry,” he said.

“As for Jason Leitch and also Gregor, the chief medical officer, my expectation would be that they retain whatever information that is relevant to the inquiry, particularly after the do not destroy notice.

“So, it’s important for them to make sure that they satisfy that do not destroy notice.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “This extraordinary admission from Humza Yousaf only raises more questions for himself and Nicola Sturgeon to answer.

“Why was there a policy to routinely delete social media messages? What were ministers and officials trying to hide?

“If this was the SNP Government’s policy, it is directly at odds with Nicola Sturgeon’s assurance in August 2021 that all messages would be handed over to the Covid Inquiry.

“Humza Yousaf simultaneously claims that deleting messages was government policy and that he retained his.

“None of this stacks up. That’s why it’s imperative that he's the one answering questions on this in parliament, not his deputy, and why his predecessor must give a personal statement explaining her actions.” Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The Covid rules themselves were well documented, what matters for the inquiry is how they were decided and the thought process behind them.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats and other transparency campaigners have consistently argued that ministers and advisers use WhatsApp to evade transparency requirements.

“The idea that there was an official policy to regularly destroy WhatsApp messages risks this looking like a conspiracy against the public.

“Even Richard Nixon wasn’t shameful enough to destroy the Watergate tapes.”