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Watch out, Nicola: Scotland’s COVID inquiry wants ministers’ WhatsApps too

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LONDON — The Scottish government has been told to hand over WhatsApp messages and other communications between its top decision-makers to the country’s coronavirus inquiry.

The official Scottish probe into the way the pandemic was handled — separate from the wider U.K. coronavirus inquiry — confirmed to POLITICO Wednesday that it has asked the devolved government at Holyrood to hand over “communications between ministers, officials and advisers relevant to the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.”

The inquiry said this also includes WhatsApp messages — raising the prospect of former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her successor Humza Yousaf, the health minister for a period during the pandemic, being ordered to hand over private texts to the team at a time they already face intense scrutiny over a campaign funding probe.

The Scottish government is required by law to offer up the material, which could then be published by the inquiry.

In its statement, the inquiry also alluded to a series of “do not destroy” letters it sent in August last year to several organizations and individuals, including the Scottish government, which may hold relevant information.

“That notice expressly referred to electronic communications such as WhatsApp messages. The inquiry therefore at an early stage envisaged the potential need to access communications in addition to emails,” a spokesperson for the inquiry said.

Boris battle

The U.K. government is locked in its own bitter battle over disclosure to the wider British coronavirus inquiry. The U.K.’s Cabinet Office was ordered to hand over unredacted messages and diaries belonging to ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but contends that much of the material it’s being asked for is “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry.

Fresh scrutiny of pandemic decisions could prove a further headache for Yousaf, who, in his opening months as first minister, has struggled to escape the shadow of an ongoing police investigation into the finances of the Scottish National Party he leads.

Any opportunity to examine the private messages of Sturgeon — who led an all-dominant SNP for just under a decade — will be gleefully accepted by opposition parties looking to further damage the pro-independence party, which has seen its poll ratings slip.

A spokesperson for Nicola Sturgeon said: “As of yet, Nicola has not received any request for information from the Scottish COVID inquiry. As with the U.K. COVID inquiry, Nicola will cooperate fully and provide any and all documentation to help with both inquiries.”

Asked by broadcasters Tuesday if he had been asked to hand over his messages to the inquiry, Yousaf said “not WhatsApps, I don’t think so.” He said that if a request came in, the Scottish government should be “absolutely open and transparent.”

The Scottish inquiry was set up to delve into the devolved government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is yet to begin public hearings, though its chair has said they hope to begin them this year.

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