Yousaf issues apology for deficiencies in Covid inquiry WhatsApp messages
Humza Yousaf issued an “unreserved” apology on Thursday (9) for deficiencies in the release of government WhatsApp messages, addressing new accusations of secrecy regarding legal advice and private emails during the Covid crisis.
The first minister faced challenges about the accuracy of statements made last week by him and Deputy Shona Robison about the Covid inquiry’s access to WhatsApp messages.
Yousaf, while apologising, faced questions from Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar about the government’s refusal to provide the inquiry with unredacted legal advice copies, a report in The Guardian said.
Yousaf maintained a commitment on behalf of his government to fully cooperate with the inquiry, emphasising the need to consult the government’s law officers for additional information on the dispute.
The broader controversy arose in late October when Jamie Dawson KC, the inquiry’s Scottish counsel, publicly contested the Scottish government’s noncompliance with requests for complete access to all government WhatsApp messages.
Nicola Sturgeon, the predecessor to Yousaf as the first minister, reportedly failed to deny allegations of deleting her WhatsApp messages.
In an attempt to address the concerns raised by the inquiry, Robison and Yousaf informed MSPs last Thursday that the initial formal request for WhatsApp messages had been made by the inquiry in September.
However, this information proved to be incorrect as the inquiry’s legal team contacted Yousaf’s officials the following day, disputing the accuracy of the accounts provided by Yousaf and Robison.
At the end of Wednesday’s parliamentary session, Robison released a written statement presenting a more intricate timeline.
It confirmed that the inquiry had made numerous requests for the disclosure of WhatsApp messages, commencing with a draft request in November 2022.
Formal requests were subsequently issued in February 2023, followed by additional follow-ups in March and June of the same year.
Yousaf acknowledged that his government had misconstrued these requests by interpreting them “too narrowly,” leading to the incorrect claim that the initial request for the WhatsApp messages was made in September.
This admission, delivered amid a rowdy First Minister’s Questions session, was met with ridicule from opposition leaders.
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, leveled accusations against Yousaf, stating that he was “peddling the same false claims” as his deputy.
Ross asserted that they had been caught engaging in a cover-up, deliberately providing false statements to the chamber. He questioned whether it was indisputable that Yousaf and Robison had misled the parliament.
Yousaf refuted Ross’s allegations and highlighted references in Robison’s statement to earlier “initial requests” from the inquiry. He said that they “don’t fear scrutiny” and fully accepted that they had interpreted the requests too narrowly.
Yousaf expressed absolute acknowledgment of the distress caused to families bereaved by Covid and offered an unreserved apology to them.
Sarwar asserted that these disputes provided additional proof that Yousaf was “totally and utterly out of his depth.” He expressed his belief that concealing crucial evidence was an affront to every victim of Covid, their families, and everyone affected by lockdowns and closures.
Yousaf’s official spokesperson mentioned ongoing discussions between the government and the inquiry regarding the use of legal documents and the extent of disclosure. He said sensitivities were noted concerning the release of legally privileged information, a matter the Welsh government had already initiated discussions about with the inquiry.