Nicola Sturgeon has insisted a WhatsApp talk among senior officials about avoiding freedom of information requests during the Covid pandemic was “light-hearted”.

The former First Minister also told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Edinburgh that one of those involved was a civil servant of the “utmost integrity”.

The Inquiry was previously shown an exchange from August 2020 between Ken Thomson, the then manager of the Covid directorate, National Clinical Director Jason Leitch and then deputy chief medical officer Nicola Steedman.

In it, Mr Thomson told the others: “Just to remind you (seriously) this is discoverable under FOI. Know where the ‘clear chat’ button is…”

He later added: “Plausible deniability is my middle name. Now clear it again!”

Mr Leitch replied “Done” and Ms Steedman “Me too”.

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Mr Thomson also used the phrase “This information you requested is not held centrally”, a stock phrase the Scottish Government uses when refusing FoI requests.

Mr Thomson denied he had been trying to frustrate the freedom of information regime, which gives people access to public records unless there are particular reasons to withhold it.

Questioned by inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson KC, Ms Sturgeon said she was not “particularly conscious” of WhatsApp groups where officials were exchanging information.

She said she had “never seen” the messages in which Mr Thomson reminded the others about clearing the chat and referred to freedom of information.

Mr Dawson said the WhatsApp exchange had been deleted by Mr Thomson, Mr Leitch and others, but retained by clinician Dr Jim McMenamin of Public Health Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon said she interpreted the exchange as “light-hearted”, noting it did not appear to make any decisions on the Covid response.

She said: “All the public servants are people of the utmost integrity and at this point and throughout the pandemic they were public servants working in a dedicated fashion… above and beyond the call of duty.”

Asked whether Mr Thomson’s remark about information not being held centrally was “an excuse officials trotted out in response to FoI requests”, she agreed that was “an interpretation that can be out on it”.

However she said officials and ministers took the pandemic “extremely seriously”, and Mr Thomson was one of the most experienced and assiduous of those involved.

She agreed it would be “abhorrent” if the Scottish Government had tried to destroy information in order to frustrate FoI and hide it from the public.

However, amid the pressure of the pandemic, it was understandable that occasionally officials would make light-hearted comments “to get themselves through the day”.