The Scottish Government has been accused of a “stench of secrecy” as the Deputy First Minister vowed that 14,000 WhatsApp messages will be handed over to the UK Covid Inquiry by next week.

A row erupted after reports suggested that Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf cannot hand over WhatsApp messages to the inquiry because they have been deleted.

Last year the Scottish Covid Inquiry issued letters to SNP ministers stating that “altering, destroying or preventing relevant documents from being provided to the Inquiry” would be an offence under section 35 of the Inquiries Act 2005.

But Deputy First Minister Shona Robison was unable to tell MSPs whether ministers or former ministers have complied with notices not to destroy messages because “no-one is sighted on the content of that” and warned that it is “confidential”.

She added that if she did know whether MSPs had complied with keeping messages would be a “breach of the inquiry rules”.

Instead, Ms Robison said it was individuals' personal responsibility to comply with what is required.

Ms Sturgeon told journalists she has “nothing to hide” but repeatedly refused to say whether she deleted WhatsApp messages related to the Covid pandemic. 

Read more: Nicola Sturgeon says 'I have nothing to hide' but silent on WhatsApps

In a statement to Holyrood, Ms Robison, who is the minister responsible for Covid inquiries, told MSPs that “it is not the culture within Scottish Government to routinely use systems such as WhatsApp for decision-making”.

She said: “Decisions are routinely made in minuted meetings, or through formal submissions to ministers.

“All relevant records of both of these have been provided to both inquiries already.”

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Ms Robison added: “The UK inquiry asked in June for summaries of all WhatsApp and similar groups related to coordination, logistics and day-to-day communication - greatly expanding the scope of what the Scottish Government needed to collate and process accordingly.

“This request was followed in September by a request for the actual messages exchanged within these groups.

“In examining the messages collated, it was clear that a number of them were of a particularly personal nature, including photos of individuals’ children and personal medical details.”

Ms Robison said that “in order to reconcile our obligations as data controller for the contents of the messages with our desire to cooperate fully with the inquiry”, the Scottish Government wrote to the UK Covid Inquiry on October 5, “requesting a Section 21 notice, to provide the necessary legal basis for providing the information within the messages”.

She added that the Section 21 notice was received yesterday, telling MSPs that “work is well underway to fully comply in accordance with the timetable set by the UK inquiry”.

Ms Robison said: “This will mean that all requested messages held will be shared, in full and unredacted, by 6 November.

Read more: Humza Yousaf reveals policy to 'routinely delete' WhatsApp messages

“In addition to the hundreds of messages already handed over to the UK inquiry, this notice will allow us to share over 14,000, mainly WhatsApp, messages from various groups and individuals over the period of the pandemic, mostly concerning routine coordination of work and meetings by officials.

“I can confirm that messages from ministers and former ministers are included.

As the First Minister recently stated, should either Covid inquiry want more information, then we expect every minister, past and present, every government official and clinical adviser to comply.”

Ms Robison also confirmed that the First Minister will submit his final statement to the inquiry “in the coming days”, and will include him passing on “unredacted” WhatsApp messages.

She added: “To be crystal clear, there is not and never has been a need for material without business value to be retained as part of the corporate record.

“Colleagues exchanging pleasantries, chatting electronically about inconsequential or personal matters while working from home during lockdown, should not be retained.”

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Ms Robison insisted that “contrary to some reports, there is not and has not been a requirement for any official, let alone ministers, to auto-delete messages without ensuring that relevant information from them is transcribed and saved appropriately first”.

Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, claimed that “the stench of secrecy from this government is overpowering”.

He said: “Nicola Sturgeon promised us in August 2021 that ‘nothing would be off limits’ including WhatsApp messages. Yet at the weekend it was revealed that she had manually deleted messages.

“Scotland’s most senior clinician Jason Leitch was also reported to have deleted WhatsApp messages on a daily basis.

“The Deputy FM has said the SNP Government will now provide 14,000 WhatsApp messages – almost a year after they were originally asked.

“Yet she refused to say whether this tally includes all messages from Nicola Sturgeon, Jason Leitch and others that were deleted. We need to know if these messages have been recovered. If they haven’t, it’s an indefensible cover-up.”

Mr Ross added: “In June 2021, the Scottish Government were told not to destroy any communication relating to the inquiry’s work, yet the Deputy FM declined to say whether any messages were destroyed after that date.

“If they were, then any SNP minister or former minister – including Nicola Sturgeon – would potentially have broken the law.”

Scottish Labour deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, claimed that “messages from those closest to the decision-making have been destroyed on an industrial scale".

She added: “What we’ve seen instead can only be construed as deliberate and co-ordinated withholding of information.“The Scottish Government’s story is still riddled with holes – we still have no idea how much evidence has been destroyed and no explanation as to why.

“The public deserve the truth and the Scottish Government must deliver it.

“Surely it is the collective responsibility of the Scottish Government to ensure that its own procedures are followed, not least by the former first minister and former deputy first minister."