John Swinney has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he “manually” deleted all his text messages with Nicola Sturgeon from the time of the pandemic. 

The former deputy First Minister and Education Secretary said it had been his practice since the SNP took power in 2007 to delete information from an “ungoverned source”.

He defined an ungoverned source as anything which was not part of the official record.

Giving evidence to the Inquiry on its third and final week in Edinburgh, Mr Swinney was quizzed about record keeping by counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC.

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The Inquiry has already heard that Ms Sturgeon and other key members of the Scottish Government’s response to the outbreak deleted all their WhatsApp messages.

Ms Sturgeon recently said she had been able to recover some informal messages from her correspondents and submitted them to the inquiry, but their nature is unclear.

Her successor Humza Yousaf was able to recover some of his WhatsApp messages from an old phone, while former Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said she kept many of hers.

Mr Dawson asked Mr Swinney if text messages he exchanged with the then First Minister to arrange phone calls or meetings were still available to him.

He replied: “They are not available.”

Mr Dawson said: “Have they been deleted?”

Mr Swinney responded: “They were deleted.”

Mr Dawson asked Mr Swinney if the messages had been deleted manually or by an auto-delete function.

Mr Swinney said: “They were deleted manually.”

Asked why, Mr Swinney explained: “I was always advised by my private office that I should not hold information that was relevant to the government’s official record in what were called ungoverned sources.

“Throughout my ministerial career I have deleted material after I have made sure any relevant information was placed on the official record of the government, and that was the approach I was advised to take.”

Mr Swinney said the advice to delete “ungoverned sources” dated back to 2007.

Asked about the source of that advice, he said: “That was advice given to me by my private office as far back as 2007 when I entered government and it was also consistent in my view with the government’s record management policy.

“I also think it is consistent with the obligations of the ministerial code.”

Mr Swinney said anything not on the official record of the government was an “ungoverned source”.

The Herald:

Mr Swinney also said he has deleted messages between himself and Mr Yousaf, who was the justice and then health secretary in the pandemic, “on an ongoing basis”.

He told the Inquiry: “They would be deleted by periodic deletion once I was satisfied I had told the private office any info that was relevant so that I was not facing a large number of messages that I would potentially have to delete on one occasion.”

Mr Swinney said he would “apologise unreservedly” if he “misunderstood” the Scottish Government’s policy of information retention.

He said: “If I have misunderstood the policy on Scottish Government in that respect, then I would unreservedly apologise for so doing because my intention was never to do anything other than to ensure the official record was furnished with the information it needed to have.”

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He told the inquiry he had never been challenged on retaining information and he did not question the policy of deleting information as a result.

Earlier, Mr Swinney said he had “worked all the hours that God sent” during the pandemic.

Asked by Mr Dawson if it was difficult for him to devote the “requisite energy” to his various portfolios during the pandemic, Mr Swinney said: “I worked all of the hours God sent at that time, seven days a week from early in the morning to late at night, and I gave it my all.

“It was challenging, there were multiple demands on my time.

“There were huge demands on my time but I gave it my level best.”

Tory MSP Craig Hoy said: “John Swinney’s admission that he manually deleted his text exchanges with Nicola Sturgeon during this crisis, when he already knew that an inquiry was bound to follow, is astonishing.

“Equally breath-taking was his assertion that destroying records and avoiding accountability was par for the course during his time in office.

“When asked whether he should have deviated from this dubious practice with an inquiry into a global pandemic looming, the former Deputy First Minister played the daft-laddie card.

“He claimed he may have misunderstood the SNP’s message deletion policy and never thought to challenge its ‘defects’ – but this faux-naivety is fooling no one. He was a senior minister complicit in coordinated efforts to cover the SNP Government’s tracks.”