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COVID adviser Professor Jason Leitch denies daily purge of WhatsApps – despite ‘pre-bed ritual’ message | UK News


The Scottish government’s national clinical director is giving evidence to the UK COVID inquiry, which is currently sitting in Edinburgh.

By Jenness Mitchell, Scotland reporter @Jenster13


Professor Jason Leitch has said his claim of deleting WhatsApp messages as a “pre-bed ritual” was a “flippant exaggeration”.

The Scottish government’s national clinical director is giving evidence to the UK COVID inquiry, which is currently sitting in Edinburgh.

Last week the inquiry was shown transcripts of a group chat.

Within the message, Ken Thomson, the Scottish government’s former director-general of strategy and external affairs, warned that its contents were “FOI-recoverable” and sent an emoji face with a mouth zipped shut.

Professor Leitch responded: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”

On Tuesday, Professor Leitch said the comment was “slightly flippant”.

He added: “It’s an exaggeration. I didn’t daily delete my WhatsApp.

“My position is – as I have just described to you – that I tried to do today’s work today, and if I could assure myself that that work had been managed and dealt with, then I deleted the informal messaging that had led to that moment.

“But this was a flippant exaggeration in an informal messaging group, and it wasn’t done every day before I went to bed.”



Image:
Professor Leitch shot to prominence during the pandemic

Professor Leitch’s statement followed reports last year that senior Scottish government officials deleted messages relating to the pandemic regularly and could not hand them to the inquiry.

The inquiry has already heard former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy John Swinney did not retain messages, although Ms Sturgeon later said correspondence had been handed over after being saved by recipients.

Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, said the exchange in Professor Leitch’s chat suggested that those in the group were “keen to try to delete messages which may subsequently be recoverable in a freedom of information request”.

Professor Leitch refuted the suggestion.

He said: “That isn’t my position.”

Read more:
Key WhatsApp messages from the UK COVID inquiry
Sturgeon not being investigated by police over ‘deleted’ WhatsApps

Chief medical officer told colleagues to delete WhatsApps ‘at end of every day’


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Professor Leitch admitted he had not retained one-to-one informal communications – except DMs from his X account – in relation to the management of the pandemic.

He maintained he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.

Professor Leitch explained: “As you’ve heard, the record retention policy was that you could use informal messaging systems for Scottish government business.

“If you did, you should ensure that any advice or any decisions or anything that should be in the corporate record was then placed in that corporate record by email, briefing, etc, and then you should then delete the informal messaging, and that’s the guidance I followed.”

Professor Leitch shot to prominence during the pandemic, appearing at Holyrood briefings alongside Ms Sturgeon on a near-daily basis as well as fronting public information campaigns on TV, radio and online.

The inquiry was also shown a WhatsApp exchange in November 2021 with then health secretary Humza Yousaf where Professor Leitch told him “literally no one” wears a face mask under official guidance.

The now first minister was clarifying the rules around wearing a mask ahead of an event.

Mr Yousaf messaged: “I know sitting at the table I don’t need my mask. If I’m standing talking to folk, need my mask on?”

Mr Leitch responded: “Officially yes. But literally no one does. Have a drink in your hands at all times. Then you’re exempt. So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”

Last month: Rishi Sunak appears at the COVID inquiry

Mr Dawson asked if the health secretary didn’t understand the rules, “what chance did anybody else have?”

Professor Leitch said he also found the guidance “tricky”.

He added: “I understood the rules and I understood what we were trying to do, but the reality of life and the environment in which we were trying to do these things perhaps suggest this guidance was nuanced rather than entirely right.”

Professor Leitch rejected a suggestion from Mr Dawson that he had offered Mr Yousaf a “workaround” to the rules.

He said: “I gave him advice to show him how to comply with the rules.”

The inquiry continues.





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