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Chief Medic Instructed Staff to Delete WhatsApp Messages Daily Amidst Covid Inquiry

Professor Gregor Smith, Scotland's chief medical officer, directed colleagues to delete WhatsApp messages every day to align with government policy, evidence presented to the UK Covid Inquiry revealed.
Professor Smith admitted regularly erasing messages, except for critical decision-making information, which was documented by email. The Scottish government is cooperating with the inquiry's requests.

Initially serving as deputy, Professor Smith assumed the role of interim chief medical officer in April 2020 after Catherine Calderwood's resignation, and was appointed permanently in December 2020. Current medical conditions have excused Calderwood from testifying.

The inquiry reviewed a July 2021 exchange where Professor Smith advised Professor Graham Ellis, then a clinical adviser, to delete messages daily. Ellis, who became deputy chief medical officer the next month, agreed humorously.

Professor Smith stated that it was standard practice to record essential information via email for transparency and encouraged colleagues to do the same. He confirmed frequent deletions of non-essential WhatsApp messages.

Decisions were logged officially only after consensus, not as verbatim conversations, but as the essence of decisions, explaining the protocol for managing informal messages.

Freedom of Information (FOI) Concerns

David Hamilton, Scotland’s Information Commissioner, expressed unease on BBC Radio over possible FOI rule violations after examining the content disclosed by the inquiry. He mentioned the possibility of an investigation, as FOI rules, critical for democracy, appeared compromised.

Hamilton clarified that his role would be to consider appeals related to information handled or deleted. His office is revisiting old appeals related to the pandemic period, hinting at public rights potentially being denied.

The Scottish government's mobile messaging guidance allowed for WhatsApp use in official matters, with a requirement to document significant discussions and save them centrally.

Records Management Policy and High-Profile Messaging

According to the Scottish government’s records management policy from February 2021, records must be maintained to fulfill business and legal duties, offering evidence of governmental decisions and activities.

The UK Covid Inquiry learned that former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon retained no messages, while her then-deputy John Swinney had auto-deleting WhatsApp settings. Some of Sturgeon’s messages were reportedly recovered and submitted in 2021.

The inquiry also displayed messages from a "Covid outbreak group" chat, triggering a discussion on FOI-recoverability. Despite a former civil servant’s denial of message deletion to evade public disclosure, the issue remains under inquiry.

The Scottish government acknowledged the information commissioner’s FOI recommendations and emphasized dedication to pandemic inquiries for future preparedness, deeming it inappropriate to discuss evidence before the hearing concludes.
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