SNP’s Yousaf plans probe into Scottish government’s WhatsApp use after “f****** clown” message

Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf has announced an independent review into the SNP-led government’s use of mobile messaging apps such as Whatsapp.

The announcement follows ongoing controversy into private messages exhanged between Nicola Sturgeon’s ministers and officials during the Covid pandemic.

Speaking at Holyrood prior to his own appearance at the Covid inquiry, Mr Yousaf said the handling of WhatsApps “has not been frankly the [Scottish] government’s finest hour”.

He added: “I put my hands up to that, unlike of course other governments.”

Mr Yousaf also admitted to the inquiry that the Scottish government’s handling of information requests was “frankly poor” – and it emerged that he used personal phones to conduct government business during the crisis.

The SNP leader announced that he had commissioned officials to deliver “an externally-led review” into the use of mobile messaging apps and the use of non-corporate technology in the Scottish government.

Mr Yousaf said it should take “particular account of our interaction with statutory public inquiries”.

Humza Yousaf arriving at the Covid public inquiry on Thursday (Getty Images)
Humza Yousaf arriving at the Covid public inquiry on Thursday (Getty Images)

Last week, the former Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon came under fire after the inquiry heard that she had erased messages sent and recieved during the pandemic.

The former leader of the SNP claimed previously she had never used informal messages to make decisions during the pandemic.

It was revealed that Ms Sturgeon and others had been routinely deleting her Whatsapp messages. But she has since argued was in line with government policy. Ms Sturgeon has claimed that relevant informal messages deleted on her own devices were later obtained and submitted to the inquiry.

Mr Yousaf’s announcement follows comments from Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and Scottish Labour’s Anas Sarwar, who have both said there wass a “culture of secrecy” at the heart of the Scottish government.

On Thursday inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson KC put it to Mr Yousaf that it was “important” for messages to be retained – amid huge controversy over the deletion of WhatsApps

The SNP leader responded: “I apologise unreservedly to the inquiry and to those mourning the loss of a loved one.”

Mr Yousaf, Scotland’s health secretary during the pandemic, also admitted that he had used personal phones to conduct government business rather than a government-issued phone.

The messages were then all deleted “after a month for cyber security purposes”, according to a document from October 2023 that details how ministers used informal communications during the pandemic.

But Mr Yousaf realised some messages were recoverable as he had retained a previous phone handset. The SNP leader has maintained that he has personally handed over all his relevant Whatsapps to the inquiry.

Many have questioned the “murkiness” of ministers and officials’ use of personal devices, after it emerged that Ms Sturgeon herself also used one during the Covid crisis.

Mr Yousaf also defended his use of masks after it merged that a top health adviser had told him he could be exempt while attending an event if he “a drink in your hands at ALL times”.

The first minister said national clinical director Prof Jason Leitch’s advice that “literally no one” followed mask guidance for standing in public places was simply him “over speaking”.

He used the same term when defended Ms Sturgeon and the Scottish government’s decision-making, after it emerged that Prof Leitch said the then-first minister “actually wanted none of us” in crucial meetings.

Yousaf argued that Sturgeon did not shut ministers out of decision-making meetings (Getty)
Yousaf argued that Sturgeon did not shut ministers out of decision-making meetings (Getty)

The inquiry counsel asked Mr Yousaf if this was an indication that Ms Sturgeon “really took decisions in connection with the pandemic herself”.

Mr Yousaf said had been “times the former first minister needed a tighter cast list” for meetings, but denied cabinet ministers were not involved in big moves. “I think this is a classic example of Jason perhaps over speaking,” he added.

The revelations follow months of debate around the use of Whatsapps in internal government decision making, after Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak failed to hand over key Whatsapp messages to the Covid-19 Inquiry. Both the former and current prime ministers have said that they no longer have access to the messages.

Meanwhile, the Covid Inquiry published messages between Ms Sturgeon and her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, where Ms Sturgeon had described Boris Johnson as a “clown”, following the former prime minister’s appearance on TV to announce the second national lockdown.

In the Whatsapps, Ms Sturgeon hit out at the UK government’s communications, stating: “This is f****** excruciating - their comms are awful. His utter incompetence in every sense is now offending me on behalf of politicians everywhere.”

Ms Lloyd said she was “offended” on behalf of special advisers everywhere. Ms Sturgeon replied: “He is a f****** clown.”