Humza Yousaf has apologised for the mass deletion of Covid WhatsApp messages, describing Scottish Government policy on the issue as "frankly poor".

Giving evidence at the UK Covid Inquiry in Edinburgh, the First Minister said there was "no excuse" for the erasure of messages between ministers and officials during the pandemic.

The apology came just hours after he promised MSPs an “externally led” review into the use of WhatsApp and other informal communications in government.

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However, he faces more questions after it emerged that he had initially told the Inquiry in October that he had deleted WhatsApp messages sent during the course of the pandemic.

Documentation provided by the Scottish Government contained an entry stating that all of Mr Yousaf's messages were deleted "after a month for cyber security purposes".

When this was reported by the Sunday Mail at the time, the First Minister said the paper’s story was “certainly not true.”

He said: “I have kept and retained all of the WhatsApp messages and I am more than happy to hand them over to the Covid Inquiry.”

The Inquiry, chaired by Lady Hallett, heard that Mr Yousaf used his own personal phones to conduct government business during the course of the pandemic rather than a government-issued device.

The First Minister explained he had been able to recover the messages he believed to be deleted by logging in and out of his account on a previous handset.

The row about messages overshadowed his appearance in front of Lady Hallett.

Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel for the Inquiry in Scotland, asked Mr Yousaf if he agreed that it was important to retain a record of "material relating to the way in which decisions were taken" so that "lessons could be learned and a better response to the pandemic be developed"?

"That is correct," said Mr Yousaf, adding: "On this issue of informal messages, including WhatsApps, let me unreservedly apologise to this Inquiry but also to those who are mourning the loss of a loved one by Covid, for the government's frankly poor handling of the various [formal Inquiry] requests in relation to informal messaging.

"There's no excuse for it. We should have done better, and it's why I reiterate that public apology today."

Mr Yousaf went on to say that "for too long" it had been the "organisational mindset" within the Scottish Government that "because the corporate record had those salient points, that was the only thing really that was to be handed over to the Inquiry".

He acknowledged that the Inquiry "made clear, of course, that you were seeking more than that".

Last week, Mr Dawson told Lady Hallett that Ms Sturgeon appeared to "have retained no messages whatsoever".

On Sunday, the former first minister took to X, the site formerly known as Twitter, to say she “conducted the Covid response through formal processes from my office in St Andrews House, not through WhatsApp or any other informal messaging platform.”

Ms Sturgeon is due to give evidence to the Inquiry next Wednesday.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf says there is 'no excuse' for deleted WhatsApps

During First Minister’s Questions, ahead of his appearance at the Inquiry, Mr Yousaf was pushed on comments made by Nicola Sturgeon’s former chief of staff Liz Lloyd.

Messages revealed that the ex-aide had called for a “purely political” row with the UK Government over furlough payments.

In October 2020, she said: “Think I just want a good old fashioned rammy so can think about something other than sick people.”

In response, Ms Sturgeon said “I get it”, adding that “it might be worth doing”.

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Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said this was why messages were being deleted. He described it as a “deliberate cover-up” of the politicisation of the pandemic.

The First Minister rejected this, insisting that the "over-arching priority” of the Scottish Government “was always to keep the people of this country safe".

But Mr Yousaf acknowledged “there are challenges in relation to our use of WhatsApp.”

He told MSPs “it has not been frankly the Government’s finest hour in relation to handling those requests”.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar described the admission as “frankly a betrayal of the trust people put into this Government.”

“Key evidence has been deleted and deliberately misleading statements have been given to the press and the public,” he added.

He added: “This isn’t just about the Inquiry - this is how this Government operates.”

Lee Dodds, from the Scottish Covid Bereaved group, said it was hard to listen to the evidence given on Thursday.

His son, also named Lee Dodds, died in 2021 when he was just 32.

He told the PA: “They go on about the WhatsApps, everything disappears and they don’t know how.

“I was just scunnered with it. I was getting bored listening to it about who was to blame, somebody else.

“But nothing about what happened to our loved ones.

“There was nothing there for us bar them blaming it on other people."

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During the session, Mr Yousaf was also quizzed on Professor Jason Leitch’s advice on dodging the Scottish Government’s own Covid rules during the pandemic.

In an informal message on 19 November 2021, Mr Yousaf, then the health secretary, messaged the National Clinical Director for advice on the rules ahead of a speech at a dinner.

He said: “I know sitting at the table, I don’t need my mask. If I’m standing talking to folk, need my mask on?”

Prof Leitch responded: “Officially yes. But literally no-one does. Have a drink in your hands at ALL times. Then you’re exempt. So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”

Asked about the exchange, Mr Yousaf said Prof Leitch was “over speaking".

He said: “For those that know Jason, I think by his own admission he would perhaps have a casual way of speaking and perhaps over speak as he described it.

“So when he says ‘but literally no one does’ that to me suggested that yes, on this particular nuance when it comes to being at a dinner or a reception that when standing speaking to people there wasn’t people wearing masks as per the guidance we had.”

The Inquiry continues.