The deletion of Scottish Government WhatsApp messages during the Covid pandemic may have “subverted the principles of Freedom of Information”, the transparency tsar has said.

Scottish Information Commissioner David Hamilton said his officials were now rechecking their appeal files to see if any gave them grounds to investigate the matter.

He said some of the evidence revealed by the UK Covid Inquiry about Nicola Sturgeon and other senior figures systematically deleting material “beggars belief”.

National clinical director Jason Leitch called WhatsApp deletion a “pre-bed ritual”, while a top civil servant reminded colleagues about their chats falling under freedom of information. 

LIVE: Storm Isha live coverage after gales blast Scotland

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon was criticised last week after it emerged her WhatsApp messages from 2020 and 2021 had been erased.

In evidence to the UK Covid inquiry on Friday, Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, said “messages were not retained, they were deleted in routine tidying up of inboxes or changes of phones, unable to retrieve messages” in relation to her correspondence.

This was in spite of Ms Sturgeon insisting in one of her regular Covid briefings in 2021 that she would hand her correspondence - including WhatsApps - to any future inquiry.

In response to accusations of a cover-up, the former FM said on Saturday she had been able to retrieve and submit some “informal” messages to the UK Inquiry.

Opposition MSPs are demanding she make a personal statement to Holyrood.

The Scottish Covid Bereaved group has asked Mr Hamilton to conduct an inquiry.

Under the 2002 Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, the public has a right to access information held by public bodies unless there is an exemption for withholding it, such as security or privacy.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, Mr Hamilton said: “The principles of the Freedom of Information Act appear to be being subverted by some of the conversations that have been released.

“That in itself is not enough for me to take action, there needs to be something that I can start with as a starting point, and that’s what my office is looking at just now - is there something that’s in play here.”

Glasgow bins: a rebellion that could be the start of something

He went on: “Some of the material that came out last week, I think many people would say beggars belief in terms of what it is.

“Now, of course, that needs context, and that needs some investigation if there's something wrong there.

“But that again is something which, if there is a remit for me to look at, then I will look at because it does seem to come down to the fundamentals of public accountability and democracy.”

Asked about the Scottish Government’s current record-keeping regime, which advised the deletion of raw WhatsApp messages while distilled decisions were recorded elsewhere, Mr Hamilton said: “Anyone would accept that in something like the pandemic there should be proper records kept.

"The working, the ideas, the thinking should be recorded so that when we come to review it and look at lessons learned - in the same way the Covid inquiry is doing - then people have something to work on and understand the rationale for that.

“That’s good public administration, that’s open government. It’s what drives trust in politicians. And when that gets broken down, that’s when we get problems.”

“What has surfaced through the Inquiry, that has giving me concern, that the public may not be getting the rights they’re entitled to.”