Gregor Smith tells Covid Inquiry ScotGov advice ‘to delete WhatApps’

But individual WhatsApp messages were routinely deleted when information was “no longer necessary”. 

During an inquiry session today, a message was brought to light where Mr Smith had advised a colleague to “Delete at the end of every day…”. 

The inquiry was shown an image of the CMO weekly call group chat from July 14 2021 where Scotland’s deputy CMO Graham Ellis asks: “Hope this isn’t FOI able?” 

Scotland’s CMO Gregor Smith responds: “Delete at the end of every day…” 

Mr Ellis responds with a sideways crying laughing emoji and a thumbs up emoji. 

The exchange was sparked by one of the topics of the call being cannabis and Mr Ellis joking that he has his own supply.

The Herald: An extract of messages sent during the pandemic by Professor Sir Gregor Smith, chief medical officer for Scotland, in a WhatsApp group chatAn extract of messages sent during the pandemic by Professor Sir Gregor Smith, chief medical officer for Scotland, in a WhatsApp group chat (Image: Covid inquiry)

Answering questions from Jamie Dawson KC on what this meant for the policy of record-keeping, Mr Smith said: “Scottish Government advice on this was not to retain information longer than was necessary.” 

“It was to make sure that any information which was pertinent information, particularly discussions which ended up in a decision was captured within the corporate systems. 

“So my practice was to make sure that any information which was important in that way was then captured in email form on the system, was formerly recorded so that it was an auditable trail.”

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He added: “I think that you will see evidence of my approach to this within the conversations that I exhort other members of those conversations to do the same. 

“But my practice was that when other information was no longer useful it shouldn’t be retained.” 

“If not at the end of every day then certainly on a frequent basis.” 

The Herald: Jamie Dawson KCJamie Dawson KC (Image: UK Covid Inquiry)

Mr Smith said this was advice given to Scottish Government employees which specifically dealt with “informal” messaging “and the need to delete on a regular basis” information which wasn’t relevant.  

He said WhatsApp was not seen as a secure medium to share information or to hold it long-term. 

Earlier, the inquiry heard from NHS Scotland Chief Executive Caroline Lamb, who described how health services were wrong-footed by the Omicron wave, leading to hospitals being stretched “past capacity”.  

Ms Lamb said that the wave hit “earlier than we were expecting it”, and that it greatly increased pressure on hospitals. 

Omicron arrived in the winter of 2021, at a time when hospitals were already under strain from the knock-on effects of previous stages of the pandemic, and the usual uptick in cold-weather illnesses.  

Ms Lamb was answering questions at the UK Covid Inquiry on why hospitals in Scotland reported being overwhelmed in between October 2021 and January 2022. 

At the end of September, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine had called for a thousand extra hospital beds to help relieve the “unrelenting pressure” facing emergency departments. 

The Herald:

Discussing this claim, and similar concerns aired at the same time by the Scottish Ambulance Service, Inquiry junior council Heather Alridge asked Ms Lamb: “We’ve got problems in capacity in terms of ambulance services stretched to breaking point.  

“One of the problems is that they can’t discharge their patients to hospital because A&E is stretched past capacity. Is that fair?” 

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Ms Lamb said: “Yes, absolutely. That’s about the time the Omicron wave hit Scotland. Scotland had a much more severe increase in that period than England. I think England then caught up with us around Christmas time.  

“Essentially, we went into winter earlier than we have gone into winter previously in terms of pressures.” 

During this period a huge volume of operations were cancelled while the public were urged only to ring 999 in terms of “life-threatening emergency”  

The Military was also drafted in to assist with ambulance driving.  

The Herald:

Ms Lamb said denied that lessons had not been learned from earlier Covid waves, and said that the highly-infectious Omicron strain of the virus had arrived when services were attempting to “get back to normal”.  

She said: “It was an extremely difficult period. It wasn’t consistent across the whole of Scotland. I think Omicron tended to focus across the Central Belt. 

“But our systems had been trying to get back a bit more into business as usual, so hospitals were very full, hence the difficulty with offloading ambulances.” 

Ms Lamb said that investment made in keeping people away from hospital, such as ‘hospital at home’ programs, which were the equivalent of three district hospitals worth of capacity. 

But knock-on effects from earlier in the pandemic, such as people presenting at A&E sicker than they had been before, and were staying longer, had also exacerbated the problem.   

Ms Lamb said: “I think that lessons absolutely were learned. The severity of the Omicron wave and the time it hit was earlier than we were expecting it.”

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